By the Men and the Horses Killed – Swearing in the Dege Dialect.

[Guestpost by Jamyang Phuntsok]

i) Gesar Fails

Among the many anecdotes from the Gesar epic that Ama likes to recount, one goes like this: Gesar has returned to Ling after slaying the demon Lutsen and finds his native land destroyed, his brother Gyatsa killed and his wife Drukmo abducted by the Hor. As he sets out to avenge, Drukmo beseeches him to not to harm the son she has had from the Hor king Gurkar. Gesar swears an oath to not let a single drop of blood fall from the son but, in the end, Gesar kills the son by burying him under a tent pole. A drop of blood comes out from the son’s nose and Gesar, the heart son of a thousand Buddhas, falls short on his promise. And that is how, according to Ama, people came to swear and take oaths.

Ama grew up a nomad girl with her uncle without ever learning to read or write, yet she managed to inculcate in me an appreciation for stories and words in the Tibetan language. While I would read to her the Gesar epic and struggle to understand a specific word or a sentence, she would have implicitly grasped the meaning and the context of the whole passage. The effects that the words that I read had on her, be it about the heroism of Gesar or the treachery of Akhu Trothung, left a deep impression on me. Ama also has a sharp ear for dialects and can do a decent impression of the Nangchen dialect (which could be partly why accents and dialects have always interested me.)

To top it all, she likes to swear. To swear as in both to swear an oath (མནའ་བསྐྱལ་བ་) and to curse (ཚིག་ངན་འདེབས་པ་).

Both my parents come from around Kharsumdo (མཁར་སུམ་མདོ་), a rural backwater by the Drichu northwest of Dege Goenchen which had nothing much going for it except for a monastery. But already there you have, with a river and a monastery, the makings of an oath and a swear phrase:

Khardo gemba མཁར་མདོ་དགོན་པ་

Drichu nong dep ju  འབྲི་ཆུ་ནང་འདེབ་རྒྱུ་

Khardo gemba’ is an oath invoking the name of the monastery whereas ‘Drichu non dep ju’ is cursing somebody to be thrown in the Drichu river. (To be fair, Ama uses it to refer to the objects she often misplaces, such as her purse or rosary). The latter is more likely to offend someone than the first one although swearing by the monastery may draw the ire from its sungma.

Kharsumdo by the Drichu river

Kharsumdo by the Drichu River


ii) The Usual Suspects

Two of the most popular oaths in the Dege dialect, and perhaps among all the Kham dialects, refer to the Jowo of Lhasa:

Jowo Rinpo ཇོ་བོ་རིན་པོ་

Josha Nampa ཇོ་ཤཱཀྱ་རྣམ་པ་

One gets a sense of where this is going. If profanities in the Hindi language mostly revolve around sex, then the oaths in the Dege dialect, if not in the standard Tibetan, are preoccupied with the sacred and the religious. Religious figures invariably make good oath fodder. My aunt’s husband, a Chushi Gangdruk veteran, was partial to Guru Padmasambhava – “ Orgen Rinpo! ” he would cry out when he was excited or wanted to emphasize a particular statement.  “Jaong Chentse!” Ama would shout in moments of distress or awe, referring to the great 19th century Ri-med master Jamyang Khyentse Choekyi Lodroe. Then you have the popular ones like “Yeshi Nobu”, “Sasha Gongma”, “Jawa Kamapa” depending upon your sectarian persuasion. Interestingly, there does not seem to an oath explicitly invoking Lord Buddha himself, but there is one which refers to his teachings:

Bhum Dhumba  འབུམ་དུམ་པ་

Literally, ‘bhum dhumba’ means the collected volumes of Buddha’s teachings, the Kanjur, printed at the Dege Parkhang. In a way, this is similar to the early Buddhist tradition of referring to the Buddha indirectly through the use of symbolism such as the dharma wheel and the bodhi tree.


iii) A Bit of History

On many childhood mornings, I woke up to the sound of Ama’s voice chanting the Twenty-One Tara prayer but the mornings when Ane Choetso dropped in for a chat were what I remember most vividly. Ane was a loud talker and could cuss her head off sometimes. When she did that, Ama would break into fits of laughter while trying to calm her down. Ane’s trademark oath was:

Alhok drak gong ཨ་ལྷོག་བྲག་སྒང་

which refers to a well-known spot, a rock actually, in the Dege town where the butchers slaughtered their cattle. With this oath, Ane, in effect, was swearing by the sins of those butchers. Understandably, Ama would entreat her to stop, “Choe gewa yoe, dha na mashe” (May you accumulate merits, do stop swearing) but that only made Ane swear more. Swearing by somebody’s sins is somewhat of a common theme. If I am not wrong, the Nangchen dialect has this oath, ‘Dikpa khur’ (སྡིག་པ་འཁུར་) which means ‘to carry the sins’. This leads me to one of my favorite oath phrases:

Nyakei nyi ta chi sey  ཉག་སྐེད་མྱི་རྟ་ཅི་བསད་

which literally means ‘By the horses and the men killed by Nyakei’. Nyakei here refers to the Nyarong warlord Gonpo Namgyal, also known as Nyakei Bhulongma, who conquered most of Kham in the mid-19th century. ‘Nyi’ is the archaic form of ‘mi’ (མི་) which is still used in the Dege dialect (along with ‘nyik’ མྱིག་ for ‘mig’ མིག་). The phrase brings to attention the destruction to life and property caused by Gonpo Namgyal who is also said to have burned down many monasteries. So, swearing by the sins committed by him is no laughing matter, but to me this phrase is like a little gem adorned with historical and linguistic import.

The practice of swearing may seem like a casual way of accumulating bad karma but it does have nobler purposes. People often swear oaths in front of a lama or a rinpoche to give up a bad habit, like smoking or gambling. (That has its own pitfalls, it must be said.) Among the nomads, it is a common practice to swear an oath of friendship (མནའ་བཞག་གྲོགས་པོ་). According to late Kasur Juchen Thupten, Jagoe Pema Ledroe swore such an oath with Nyarong Gonpo Namgyel and cleverly averted the burning down of the Dege Parkhang by Nyakei’s troops.

Later when the Nyarong chief was held up in his fort which was set to fire by the Lhasa troops, he is said to have shouted, “Khorey, Dege’i na zen” (ཁོ་རེ་ སྡེ་དགེའི་མནའ་གཟན་) bemoaning Pema Ledroe’s dishonoring of their friendship oath. In exile, too, I know of several cases in our Tibetan settlement where oaths have served as a last resort for settling disputes and claims.


iv) Corpses vs Honorifics

Compared to the oaths, the profanities in the Dege dialect seem more mundane and run of the mill except for one word – ‘ro’ (རོ་). ‘Ro’, meaning corpse, not only forms the backbone of the very offensive ‘Pharo za ju’ (ཕ་རོ་བཟའ་རྒྱུ་), which means to curse someone to eat their father’s corpse, but also appears in many other profanities of varying seriousness. In fact, ‘ro’, in its ubiquity and versatility, could be the equivalent of the f-word in the English language. For instance, just like the f-word it can be inserted into a harmless sentence to render it more offensive – a harmless query “choe chi zhey si yoe?” (ཁྱོད་ཅི་བྱེད་སི་ཡོད་ What are you doing?) becomes the offensive “choe chi ro zhey si yoe?” (ཁྱོད་ཅི་རོ་བྱེད་སི་ཡོད་ What the f*** are you doing?). ‘Ro dra chik’ (རོ་འདྲ་ཅིག་) is harmless enough, meaning ‘a lot’ or ‘very badly’ but ‘Choe pharo dra chik’ (ཁྱོད་ཕ་རོ་འདྲ་ཅིག་) could mean anything from ‘I don’t believe you’ to ‘You go to hell’. ‘Ro mi bub’ རོ་མི་སྦུབ་ (literally, upend your corpse) is how Aba used to say ‘go to sleep’ when I stayed up late at home.

It must be pointed out that I myself don’t really use any of the aforementioned oaths except for ‘Jowo rinpo’ and ‘Yeshi Nobu’.  My own vocabulary of profanities can be loosely described as half-Hindi and half-schoolboyish. The oaths I have described here are very regional and outside of their original setting, they would seem archaic and quaint. Perhaps, it is this sense of quaintness that first appealed to me along with the reaction – of mock anger and barely suppressed bemusement – these oaths provoked from my parents when I uttered them. For my parents, though, they are real enough. Years of exile have not diluted the immediacy of these words for them and they provide for them a connection, however tenuous, to the land they left behind.

But then this sense of nostalgia is my own rather than theirs. Whatever my initial motivation, this interest in swear words have led me to immerse myself deeper in my native dialect and in the Tibetan language as a whole. In a strange way, my school education also played its part, where the ‘discipline committee’ and some teachers always seemed hell-bent on convincing us that ‘sheysa’ (honorifics, as used in the Lhasa dialect) was indispensable for ‘yarab choesang’ (good character). But the more they tried, the less I was convinced. This ‘unlearning’ became complete in my final year at school when they decided to penalize students for failing to add a ‘la’ after somebody’s name. I felt relieved to be finally escaping this sort of education which was aimed at uniformity and homogenization.  And that at home I had parents who never let go of an opportunity to explain to me, whether it was how one spoke or wore a chupa, what was ‘our’ (འུ་གུ་རྣམས་ཀྱི་) way of doing it, regardless of what I had been taught at school.

It is indeed hard to argue against Calvin’s (of ‘Calvin and Hobbes’) verdict that life’s disappointments are harder to take if you don’t know any swear words. But I have learnt that knowing a few in your native dialect has its own, less celebrated rewards.