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Bantawa: Overview and introduction to the Tibeto-Burman Kiranti language

Bantawa language, the member of the Kiranti branch of Sino-Tibetan language family, though is among the more widely spoken language of the family, it falls in the below-100,000 category of endangered languages.

Kiranti Languages: an introduction

image of a Nepalese woman doing Namaste
A Nepalese woman doing 'Namaste'

We have recently leart about the Indian language family where we read about the the Indic languages (Indo-Aryan and the Dravidian family). We also learnt about four other linguistic groups that enrich the language landscape of India. They are:

  • Austroasiatic
  • Tibeto-Burman
  • Tai-Kadai
  • Andamanese

The Kiranti languages are a group of Tibeto - Burman languages spoken across Eastern Nepal and India (especially in Sikkim and Darjeeling). However, it is also assumed that all the tribes of Kiranti have not descended from Tibet and Burma and hence they have their own independent language family. It is believed that most of the Kiranti languages have less than 10,000 speakers and are on the verge of extinction.

Yaks in the foot hills of Himalayas, region of Kiranti Bantawa languages
Yaks sitting with backdrop of the Himalayas

One of the reasons for this is the influence of Nepali language on the Kiranti language. This language shift to Nepali -the language of education and literacy is gradually happening in most places. The main surviving Kiranti languages are Bantawa, Chamling,Kulung,Thulung, Sampang, Dumi, Khaling, Nambuley, Bahing, Koyu, Yamphu, Chiling, Lohorung, Nowahang, Tilung,Zerong, Dungmali, Linkhim,Sam, Limbu, Sunuwar, Puma and Yakkha.

Bantawa Language

Yak in Sikkim
A healthy Yak in North East India

Among the various form of Kiranti languages the most widely spoken is the Bantawa language. It is spoken in Eastern Nepal and Sikkim and Darjeeling District in West Bengal and in south-western Bhutan. The Bantawa language is the lingua franca amongst the Rais in Eastern Nepal as well as North-eastern India (Bradley 1996). In the year 1996 Bantawa was recognized as one of the 11official state languages of Sikkim.

The dialectical division formulated by Eppele (2003) is the most widely accepted division of the Bantawa language. According to him there are four main dialects of the Bantawa language based on the idea of thums ie kingdoms. They are Hatuwali, Amchoke, Dilpali, and Dhankuta. The earliest linguistic account of Bantawa language is found in Hodgson(1975). He uses the term Bantawa to connote a group of languages rather than treating it as a single linguistic unit. Thus, it was not until 1953 that the term Bantawa began to be used as a glottonym of a single linguistic unit.

Tea plantations in Darjeeling
Women plucking tea leaves at Sikkim tea gardens

Origin of the word Bantawa 

The term Bantawa is presently used as a glottonym as well as and an ethnonym.

Glottonym is a linguistic term that refers to a single language and ethnonym designates an ethnic group or tribe. There is no definite etymology for the term “Bantawa”. However, I have tried to provide the etymology of the Bantawa word based on its folklore.

Kiranti and Bantawa language Tibeto burmese lake
Roopkund Glaciar, Himalayas

The original word for Bantawa was Buntawa which is made of three meaningful units of words ie bun +ta+wa. The meaning of “bun” is source of water that could be a river, sea, lake or glacier. The meaning of the second word “ta” has been taken from the verb “tama” which means “to come”, “to reach” and the third word “wa” is man, people, race or tribe. Therefore, the term Bantawa means people who came from the source of water.

Kiranti languauge script/lipi
The Kiranti script: vowels-swar, alphabets-vyanjan

Read below the days of the week in Bantawa language : lenonuŋ

English          Bantawa 

Sunday Namlen
Monday  ladiplen
Tuesday  khamlen
Wednesday  sәkmulen
Thursday  parulen
Friday  ruwalen
Saturday  sawalen

Mundum is the oral tradition of passing information through speech, as was the case for centuries in Ancient India. Mundum is also considered ancestral knowledge that has been transmitted orally through generations. However, the language used in rituals for addressing deities and ancestors is different and such mundum is considered as classical language. The Rai priest called Mangpa uses such language while performing rituals and this is the reason why a single word has two different terms:

English Bantawa general Bantawa Classical
Ginger  bechuk  subi
Rice cajuŋ  watapmaca
Maize  sanŋca  paruca
Wheat  nukca  chumaca
Millet  carima  sumnica

Current scenario of Bantawa language

The Bantawa language is taught as an optional language in some of the primary schools of Nepal and India. An attempt has been made to develop Bantawa course books separately in both countries. However, many of the schools discontinued teaching Bantawa due to no or minimal government support. At present only about ten schools are still conducting Bantawa classes.

Two magazines published in Kiranti Buntawa language
Magazines in Kiranti-Bantawa language

The Bantawa language has been written in two different scripts namely a modified Devanagiri in Nepal and Kripa Salyan Script in Sikkim. ‘Bungwakha’ a monthly language magazine in Bantawa has been frequently published since 2005 in Nepal and in Sikkim a monthly state magazine is also routinely published. Folk stories, dictionaries as well as glossaries in Bantawa language too have been written and published. Thus it can be seen that although attempts have been made to promote Bantawa yet there has been a rapid decline in the usage of Bantawa language.


1) A linguistic history of  Bantawa by Kwang Chu Cho (2020)

2) The Sino-Tibetan languages by Graham Thurgood and Randy J.Lapolla (2003)

3) Bantawa: A Sociolinguistic Survey by John William Eppele (2003) Unpublished Manuscript.

4) Bantawa Rai as a lingua franca by David Bradley (1996)

5) Comparative vocabulary of the several languages (dialects) of the celebrated people called Kirantis by Brian Houghton Hodgson 1857 ( Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal 26(5). 333-371)

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