Long before the first sightings of the Central Himalaya by intrepid colonial adventurers, the Newars of Kathmandu woke up everyday to the sight of the formidable Ganesh, Langtang, Jugal and Rolwaling himals to the north of their Valley. Surprisingly, the Newars never found it necessary to name these ranges, let alone the individual peaks. They generically called the whole panorama Chwaphu Ghu (snow-hill). Similarly, except for isolated Kirat peak-names in eastern Nepal, and other than a few that carry the names of deities, the mountain people elsewhere in Nepal do not seem to have christened the mountains that form the backdrop to their country.
It is thus clear that, for all that is made of the Himalaya in the ancient Sanskrit scriptures (see, for example, Himal’s masthead sloka). the Newars and other mid-hill-people were spiritually and culturally detached from the snow mountains. The same, of course, is not true of the Tibetan-speaking communities such as the Sherpas, perhaps because they live amidst the mountains rather than astride them. These groups do have individualised names for peaks.
About 70 percent of mountains in Nepal today are known by their Tibetan/Sherpa local names, including three of the eight “Eight Thousanders” of Nepal. Cho Oyu (8201m) is Tibetan for “Goddess of the Turquoise”, Shisha Pangma (8046m, in Tibet) means ´The Crest above the Grassy Knoll”, and Lhotse (8516m) is, literally, “South Peak”.
It is not height but prominence in shape that seems to have determined the importance and christening of peaks that have Tibetan labels. Sherpas consider Khumbui Yu La (“The God of Khumbu”) as more sacred than any other mountain. The mountain stands tall above the villages of Khunde, Khumjung, Thangboche and Phortse, like a guardian angel. Among the Tibetan suffixes that keep recurring in the nomenclature, ´tse´ and ´ri´ denote “peak” (Baruntse, Langtang Ri), while ´Kang´ denotes “Snow” (Gyachung Kang, Kang Rimpoche).
While Tibetan names are common around the Sherpa heartland of Khumbu, as one moves west, Sanskrit-based names tend to take over for the taller peaks and ranges. This may partly be due to the fact that, in the West, the Himalaya spreads deeper into the south, where Sanskrit-based cultures dominate. The Hindus who migrated eastwards, as well as pilgrims, must have had a role in the naming of Kailas (Kang Rimpoche), Gauri Shankar and Gosainthan (Shisha Pangma). This religious association is even more evident in the mountains further west, in Garhwal, home to the pilgrimage sites of Kedarnath and Badrinath, and to holy massifs such as Rishi Pahar, Hanuman, Shivling, Devthali and Devisthan.
In the early 1900s, the Survey of India provided four of the Himalayan “Eight Thousanders” with non-traditional Sanskrit names: Dhaulagiri 8167m, from dhavala (white) plus giri (mountain); Manaslu (8163m), from manas (intellect or soul), means “Mountain of the Soul”; Nanga Parbat (8125m), the Naked Mountain; and Annapurna (8091m), Goddess Rich in Sustenance. It is not clear whether the Survey´s pundits/explorers coined these names or researched for local usage. That the name Dhaulagiri occurs together with Nilgiri (“Blue Mountain”), lesser peak of the Annapurnas across the Kali Gandaki, suggests the latter.
Certainly, there is enough disagreement about the meaning and origin of peak names, including that of Makalu (8463m). In 1884, the Survey explorer named the mountain “Kama Lung”, deriving it from the adjoining Tibetan district of Kham It is possible that the name Makalu came from a transposition of the original Tibetan words. Makalu might also have been a corruption of Maha-Kala, which in Sanskrit means “Great Weather”, characterising the fierce qualities of the Hindu deity Shiva, who controls the weather. Geographer Harka Gurung refers to a pilgrim site below the peak named Mahankal. As the highest mountain of the Himalaya and the world, perhaps it is not surprising that Chomolongma boasts of the greatest number of calling cards. Altogether 24 different names have been noted, although most are obscure and/or unlikely. Some of die improbable and colourful names accorded to Chomolongma: Byamalung, Devadhunga, Jomolangma-higansri, Mithik Dguthik Byaphur Longna and Lho Chadzimalungpa, the last one meaning “The Southern District where the Birds are kept”. Most of these names were reported by early explorers who said the names were provided by monks in Lhasa.
Historian Baburam Acharya, as early as 1938, debated the issue of “Sagarmatha or Chomolongma” in a well-researched article in Sarada magazine. He claimed to have come up with substansive evidence that Sagarmatha was, in fact, a long-standing name among the Kirati-speaking people of east Nepal.
Whenever mountaineers in the Himalaya found that peaks in the vicinity of their expedition had no name (more likely they failed to ask), they went on a christening spree. Most of the names bestowed by Western climbers are descriptive in nature — Wedge Peak near Kangchenjungha, Roc Noir in Annapurna Himal, and so on. When he climbed up to the Lho La while attempting Chomolongma in 1921, George Mallory saw a 7161m peak to his right. He decided to name it “Clara Peak” after his daughter. But the Sherpas, finding the name alien, preferred “Pumori”, literally, the Daughter Peak.
By 1983, the Nepali Government had decided to put a stop to this international name calling. That year, a Committee to Name Mountains and Tourist Spots was formed, with Harka Gurung as chairman. The Committee came up with names for 31 peaks around the country. “Our first criteria was that as far as possible, existing indigenous names be used Failing that, we created names which were descriptive of the mountain in some way, or else gave names with local significance,” says Prachanda Man Shrestha, a Tourism Ministry official who was in the Committee.
The Twins (7350m & 7005m), to the north of Kangchenjungha, were assigned the popular Kirati name of Gimmigela Chuli. Glacier Dome (7193m), near Annapurna One, was rendered Tarke Kang (White Peak), and Cross Peak (6431m) in East Nepal, was renamed Taple Shikhar after Taple, the popular historic King of the area. Altogether seven peaks were given the names of nearby glaciers or rivers, seven of adjoining regions, seven original names were restored, and ten new names were created.
The Committee´s work has been lauded by those who know mountains and mountaineering, but it was involved with only certain prominent massifs in popular mountaineering regions. Many lesser-known peaks of Nepal still retain their ´foreign´ names. For example, a cluster of 5000-6000m peaks around Saipal (7031m) in West Nepal still bear the names Firnkopf, Grateck, Schiefer Spitze and Schwarze Wand Saitze — tongue twisters all.
Do the mountains, thus rechristened, retain their newly acquired names? The Ministry of Tourism has not carried out a follow-up on the work of the Committee. So, apart from Ministry of Tourism publications, and a few foreign purists, the climbing journals and mountaineers continue to use many of the original names. For example, the Committee Tenamed Jannu (7710m), the famous satellite peak of Kangchenjungha, Kumbhakarna. But the old name continues in use by mountaineering journals.
At present, about 2 percent of mountain names in Nepal are of ‘foreign’ origin. Of the 439 peaks above 6500m in Nepal, almost half have no names at all. They are referred to by numbers such as P.7739 or P.7514 to indicate their height. Similarly, many peaks of individual peaks are denoted by Roman numerals, as in Annapurna I-V, Ganesh I-VI, and so on. If there are local names for any of these peaks, they have not been popularised, except for Pabil (Ganesh IV, 7102m). Ganesh III, in fact, is Salasungo and in Dhaulagiri Himal, many local names like Mula Kang, Sherbong and Jeyre Meyre have been noted.
Hopefully, each of these ´nameless´ peaks will acquire their popular and/or indigenous names, ones that are easy on the tongue and that local inhabitants can relate to.
Risal is Himal’s Know Your Himal columnist.