Documentary Corpus of Chhitkul, an endangered Tibeto-Burman language of Northern India

Documentary Corpus of Chhitkul, an endangered Tibeto-Burman language of Northern India

Language: Chhitkul (ISO639-3:cik)
Depositor: Philippe Antoine Martinez
Location: India
Deposit Id: 0544
ELDP Id: SG0531
Level: Deposit

Summary of deposit

The annotated video corpus will be the first ever of Chhitkul. The recordings will take place in the two villages where the language is spoken, Rakchham and Chhitkul, and in any neighbouring place where speakers are to be found, notably in Reckong Peo, the headquarters of Kinnaur district. The corpus will provide a naturalistic snapshot of the language as it is used in everyday life by focusing on an array of everyday conversations. The corpus will also preserve a selection of Chhitkul’s folklore, notably tales, told by a handful of elderly women during winter. Multi-purpose recordings of elicited materials based on two picture-based stimuli tasks will be included in the collection as well.

The recordings will involve speakers from various backgrounds in terms of age, gender, level of education, occupation, and social position, including speakers from the lower caste (whose first language is Indo-Aryan), so as to capture language variation.

Relevant linked metadata will include a description of the recordings and their significance, information on the participants and on speech genres markers in Chhitkul.

In the first instance the fully-annotated corpus will serve the investigation of evidentiality in Chhitkul but it will shed light on various linguistic features as well.

Group represented

The early history of the region remains largely unknown, notably due to the paucity of authentic records and to the fact that small West Himalayish communities like Chhitkul have until recently lived in isolated and inaccessible mountainous areas. Questioning the veracity of many accounts, Singh (1989: 59) roughly divides the history of Kinnaur in seven main periods: (1)The pre-Bhot period (Antiquity-7th century A.D.) – Proto History; (2)Bhot period (7th century A.D. - 13th century A.D.); (3)Period of early State formation (14th century A.D. - 17th century A.D.); (4)Period of consolidation of State formation (18th century - 1815); (5)Period of British Paramountcy over Bushahr (1816-1947); (6)Post-independence period till 1960 (1948-1960); (7)Post-1960 period. Among the various tribes mentioned in ancient (Vedic) literature are the Kinners, often described, in Hindu (though not in the Rig Veda), Jain, and Buddhist scriptures, as half human beings and half gods. The depiction of Kinnauris as gifted musicians and dancers is also found in numerous myths and legends. The Khashas, of Aryan origin, were reportedly the earliest immigrants in the area. According to Berreman (1972: 15), they settled in the area between 1500 and 1000 B.C. and became the dominant group in Lower and Central Kinnaur. As the first political power in the Western Himalayas, the ancient kingdom of Zhangzhung (Western and North-western Tibet), associated with the Bön religion, extended beyond the actual Tibet autonomous region, but the precise geographical extent of the kingdom is not ascertained, which means it is not known whether Kinnaur was part of it. Zhangzhung is assigned by some scholars (Shafer 1957, Stein 1971) to the West-Himalayish subgroup. A handful of Tibetan documents from the 11th century further suggest a close relationship between Zhangzhung language, now extinct, and Kinnauri. However, according to Grierson (1909: 427), the latter “has more traces of the influence of a non-Tibeto-Burman substratum [Munda family?] than in any other Himalayan dialect”. The kingdom of Zhangzhung was subsequently conquered by the Tibetan (Bhot) empire during the 7th century. The degree of influence the Tibetan empire had on Kinnaur is subject to controversy. Bajpai (1991: 30) observes that “there was no Tibetan rule in Kinnaur”, which implies that Bhot rule was rather indirect, especially from the downfall of the Tibetan empire (in 842) to the 14th century. However, according to Singh (1989: 71), “Bhots must have ruled in Kinnaur because their descendants are higher caste predominant people”. What is more readily admitted is that the region was spared the recurring conflicts between the kingdoms of Kullu and Ladakh (which did involve the neighbouring district of Lahaul and Spiti), and remained largely out of the clutches of the Mughals. At the beginning of the 14th century, Kinnaur was divided into seven parts “Sat Khund”, each ruled by a Thakur, or local lord. These Thakurs were often in conflict with each other. As a result, state-formation (the so-called Bushahr State) was incremental and was not truly discernible before with the coming to power of Rājā Kehri Singh (1639-1696). Through a process of “Rājpūtization of the tribes” (Sinha 1962: 36) and the recognition by the Rājā of local deities in exchange for legitimacy, State consolidation took place but was soon jeopardized as the Gurkhas of Nepal invaded the area from the end of the 18th century onwards, ransacking Rampur, the newly-established capital, and destroying the records of the Bushahr State. From the battle of Plassey (1757) onwards the British influence in the region became more palpable. Taking advantage of its main bases in Calcutta, Madras and Bombay, the British East India Company consolidated its position in the area. War was declared against the Gurkhas in 1814 and promptly ended with their expulsion from the area and the signing of the Treaty of Sugauli (1816) which resulted in expanding the British sphere of influence at the expense of the Nepalese. The Sikhs tried to contest the British rule but were also defeated in 1845. Once the British ascendancy over the area was confirmed, European travellers (Fraser 1820; Kennedy 1824, Herbert 1825; Jacquemont 1829; Hutton 1839, 1840; Gerard 1841; Cunningham 1844; Madden 1846; Kutzner 1857) began to provide accounts of Kinnaur. The construction of the Hindustan-Tibet road, commissioned by the British Governor General of India, Lord Dalhousie, in June 1850 (Minhas 1998: 83), gave an impetus to trade between Kinnaur and Tibet. During the whole British period, Kinnaur was part of the Bushahr State, or Princely State (one of the two types of territories under the British Raj 1858-1947). In 1898, the Bashahr state, which covered the whole current Kinnaur district, was formally taken over by the British administration, though the Raja was still formally in charge. Following India’s independence in 1947, Kinnaur was included in a larger administrative unit, Mahasu district. Kinnaur then became a district of its own in 1960 (with three administrative sub-divisions - Nichār, Kālpa and Pooh, reconnecting with the ancient Kinnaurdesh, which covered an area situated between the mountains of the Sutlej and the Yamuna Rivers (Mamgain 1971: 49). The 1962 Sino-Indian war forced Kinnaur to focus entirely on other parts of India for trade. The State of Himachal has experienced profound social evolutions and significant improvements in living standards over the past half century. As argued by Singh (1989: 246), “it is only after 1960 that the Kinnauri economy has been monetized in a significant way”, successfully initiating a transition from a traditional subsistence-based economy (pastoralism and crops) to commercial horticulture (mainly apples, potatoes and dry fruits). State-led policies, notably the land reforms (implemented during the 1950s and the 1970s), together with the development of infrastructure (the National Highway 22) have played a decisive role in this regard, allowing the Kinnauris to export their production. Economic growth is also fuelled by a boom in the construction sector and a rapid growth in intra-tourism. At the beginning of the 21st century, the Himachali authorities have identified hydropower as a sector with great potential. Consequently, various hydro projects have been launched since then (including in Kinnaur district), some of which have been stalled by community resistance. The strong pace of economic and infrastructure development has resulted in a surge of migrant workers, especially from Nepal. As argued by Rahimzadeh (2016: 68), climate change is now making Rakchham and Chhitkul suitable places for apple production: “in Chitkul Village they have not been able to grow apples up to now, but they will produce in five years. They produced about 8-10 boxes last harvest. Times have changed, weather has changed. This winter we have seen so much snowfall. But in general the weather is hotter and hotter year-by-year. There is a place called Mustarang between the villages of Rakcham and Chitkul. Mustarang land belongs to Chitkul people. Last year they produced eight boxes [of apples]. After five years, they will produce much more” (interview, May 2013). Chhitkul and Rakchham may therefore benefit from the “apple rush” in the coming years. For the time being, the two villages are relying on livestock rearing, crop cultivation, weaving and service in public sector. According to The World Bank (2015: 13), growth in Himachal Pradesh “has been accompanied by very good human development outcomes”. Although an overwhelming of Kinnauris live in rural areas, considerable progress has been made in terms of literacy (82.8% according to the 2011 census) and education, with elementary education (in Hindi) being now universal. The rate of literacy is lower (50-70%) in more remote areas like Chhitkul though. A primary school was established in Chhitkul in 1952. A high-school was also built in 2011 with plans of expansion in the coming years. Youngsters generally go to Sangla, Rampur, Shimla and Solan for higher education. Chhitkul and Rakchham display a syncretism between Hinduism, Buddhism and pre-Buddhist beliefs. Chhitkul’s deity, Mata Devī (‘the goddess Mata’) is the epicenter of its religious and ritualistic life. Mata Devi “is the only non-Buddhist deity acknowledged in the [Hindu] parikrama [the circumambulation of sacred places] process” (McKay 2015: 180). During winter, the deity is deposited inside one of the village’s two Buddhist temples. The worshipping of the village’s deity is called ‘puža’ or ‘sarpaling’. All village members are welcomed to attend, though the rituals are performed by men only. Only one person in each village (‘groktsu’ in Chhitkul) is authorized to speak, as in a trance, through a deity; this authorization has been passed down through generations as the only way to reconnect with the so-called 'pure' language. The role of the village’s deity in money-lending is also emphasized in Singh (1989) and justified by her all-pervasive role and the fact that geographical constraints de facto excluded villages such as Rakchham and Chhitkul from the official credit infrastructure for a long period of time. The Panchayat system (local government) has been introduced in Chhitkul and Rakchham following The Himachal Pradesh Panchayat Raj Act, which came into force in 1953. Both the chief and the chief-deputy of the village are elected for a period of five years. Typically, the Panchayat deals with issues related to construction, sanitation, administration (registration of births, marriages and deaths), education (primary school) and water supply, this list being non-exhaustive. An exchange system is still very much in practice in Chhitkul; it is called 'siribiri'.

Language information

Chhitkul is a Tibeto-Burman language commonly assigned to the West-Himalayish subgroup which comprises about 15 languages, most of them spoken in Northern India. All that is known about Chhitkul is a few pages by Bailey (1915, 1920) and a succinct sketch grammar by Sharma (1992). These sources suggest that it differs significantly from the neighbouring languages, notably Kinnauri. Bailey (1920: 78) contends that “the inhabitants of these two villages [Chhitkul and Rakchham] speak a dialect of Kanauri which is very different from other Kanauri dialects, including Standard Kanauri, so different that it is not understood by people from any other part of Kanaur”. Chhitkul and Kinnauri are not only mutually unintelligible, but they also differ from each other in many respects (pronouns, morphology, case marking, tense, aspect) based on Bailey’s and Sharma’s descriptions.

Chhitkul, also colloquially shortened to ‘Chhul’, is spoken in the Kinnaur district of Himachal Pradesh. Kinnaur, also referred to as 'Khunu' (‘mountain’) by the Tibetans, has been an independent district since the 1st of May 1960. It is one of the twelve districts of Himachal Pradesh, the second largest by size and the second least populated (84, 121) according to the 2011 census. Himachal Pradesh was made a full-fledged state in 1971. Kinnaur is also one of the two districts (with Lahaul and Spiti) that borders on China (Tibet). Chhitkul has no script and is exclusively spoken by members of the high caste, referred to as ‘Rajputs’, in two small villages located in the far-off mountains of Kinnaur, Rakchham (population 685, altitude of 2,900 meters) and Chhitkul (population 700, altitude of 3,450 meters), the latter being the last village of the Baspa valley on the old Hindustan-Tibet road, closed since the 1962 Sino-Indian war. The total number of speakers of Chhitkul is estimated at 1,060 by Ethnologue (1998: 14). Both villages are located on the side of the Baspa River, in a valley (Sangla, or alternatively Baspa) described by Bajpai (1991: 15) as “the most beautiful and romantic in Kinnaur district”. Both villages are separated from Tibet by the Zaskar Mountains.

There is only one lower caste in Chhitkul (‘Chamangs’, traditionally weavers) whereas there are two in Rakchham (‘Chamangs’ and ‘Domangs’, primarily blacksmiths). These lower castes, the so-called Scheduled Castes (SCs), speak a different language that belongs to the Indo-Aryan family.

Eight languages are spoken in Kinnaur district. Seven of them are Tibeto-Burman (including Chhitkul), the remaining one (reportedly spoken by the lower castes all over Kinnaur) Indo-Aryan. Hindi (the official language of Himachal Pradesh), Pahari (Pahadi in Sharma Vyathit 1984: 110), Nepali (spoken by migrant workers) and Kinnauri (also called Homskad) are the languages used in inter-group communications. The languages spoken in Kinnaur district are the following: Tibetan (in upper-Kinnaur), Sunnam, Shumcho, Jangshung/Jangrami, Kinnauri (‘standard’), Kinnauri (‘lower’), Chhitkul, and the Indo-Aryan language spoken by the Lower Castes. Kinnauri has been further classified into Lower Kinnauri and Standard Kinnauri by Bailey (1911). Virtually all members of the Chhitkul community are fluent in Hindi. Men with a higher education may be conversant with English.

The vitality of Chhitkul is weakened by the conjunction of various socio-economic factors. The spread of Hindi, the language used in public administration, in the media and main medium of instruction, confines Chhitkul to one domain, namely the home. Infrastructure development (the National Highway 22) makes Rakchham and Chhitkul less remote than in earlier times. Youngsters move away from the two villages, and assimilate to other ethnic groups despite proactive measures intended to maintain the youth population in the village (e.g. a newly built high school). Finally, though the current context is more conducive to the documentation of minority languages – the Central Institute for Indian Languages (CIIL) playing a central role in this regard – revitalization initiatives remain virtually non-existent. The low level of governmental support towards minority/tribal languages, as reflected in the ‘three-language formula’, which advocates the study of Hindi, English and preferably one southern language in the Hindi speaking States, and Hindi, English and the regional language in the non-Hindi speaking States, is not sufficiently accommodating. Minority languages like Chhitkul are never taught in schools and are seen as backward. The Chhitkul community is excluded from all language policy, which remains hopelessly top-down. The fact that Chhitkul is endangered was indirectly confirmed by the Ministry of Human Resource Development in 2017. Kinnauri, though until recently a lingua franca in the area, is one of the seven Himachali languages identified as “on the verge of extinction”. Therefore, Chhitkul, far from being a lingua franca, and already disappearing in Rakchham, cannot possibly be in a more enviable situation.

The recurring tensions between India and China (the latest example being the 71 day long diplomatic crisis observed during summer 2017) also have considerable implications for Chhitkul village. So far infrastructure development in the area exclusively served economic purposes, but the Indian authorities have recently changed their strategy, adding a strategic/military dimension. A 20 kilometer long road is currently being built from Chhitkul to Dumti, the latter being located closer to the border with China (Tibet). Work was initiated in October 2013 along the Hindustan-Tibet road to strengthen the presence of the Indian Army in the area. Chhitkul will remain the last inhabited site of the Baspa Valley before the border, but an increased military presence is potentially disruptive by strengthening the use of already dominant languages (Hindi and Nepali).


Chhitkul is a non-tonal language and has no classifiers. Word order is SOV with a predominant head-final pattern. Chhitkul also exhibits echo-formations. Possession is marked by means of the postposition da, inserted between the possessor and the possessed (equivalent to Hindi ke pās). Referring to Bailey’s (1920: 78-86), Chhitkul has a less complex system of declension and conjugation than Kinnauri (ibid, p. 79). In the same vein, the system of pronouns is less elaborate. Dual forms in the personal pronouns and exclusive and inclusive plurals in the first person are attested. Honorific and non-honorific forms are distinguished for both second and third person. Chhitkul exhibits person-indexing (by means of suffixes) in verbal forms, what Sharma (1992: 259) refers to as ‘subject incorporation’. Infixation of the pronominal object in the verbal form, a peculiar feature of Kinnauri, is attested in a few instances only in Chhitkul. Based on morphosyntactic typology developed by Comrie (1978) and Dixon (1979), the language is ergative. However, ergative marking is optional in most instances and seems to be conditioned by pragmatic and semantic factors.

Special characteristics

The entire collection will be of interest in terms of language classification. Data on West-Himalayish languages is scarce; comprehensive grammars are only available for Rongpo (Zoller 1983), Darma (Willis 2007), and Bunan (Widmer 2017). Consequently, the internal classification of the subgroup (Shafer 1967; Benedict 1972; Saxena 1992; Bradley 1997; Thurgood & LaPolla 2003, 2017) remains hazardous. Kinnauri “shows many signs of Munda substratum” (Bailey 1938: 46) and is described as exhibiting “many layers of linguistic data” (Sharma 1988: 11), namely Old Indo-Aryan, Austro-Asiatic, and Tibeto-Burman. Still according to Sharma (1988: 13), the ZhangZhung language, now extinct, also has left a “strong impact” on Kinnauri. Chhitkul is commonly assigned to the Western branch of West-Himalayish languages (Benedict 1972, Saxena 1992, Thurgood 2003) and further down to the ‘Kinnaur subgroup’. However, as mentioned earlier, Chhitkul differs significantly from Kinnauri, which raises the question whether the former is assignable to a distinct subgroup.

By covering a variety of genres, the corpus will provide a rich and versatile vocabulary, including borrowed words from Hindi and Kinnauri (among others), thus paving the way for a dictionary as “an instrument of language maintenance” (Gippert et al. 2006:71) and as “a resource for research and as a repository of the language for the speech community” (Sperlich 1997: 1).

The recording and annotation of traditional genres will lay the groundwork for story books and folktales as a medium to sustain the community’s traditional narratives. As argued by Sharma Vyathit (1984: 114), ”people in Himachal love listening to tales. When two or more of them meet, telling tales is the usually beginning of conversation. One party or the other then takes the lead and the long narratives open up. To overcome travel fatigue, or pass the long cold winter nights, story-telling is a very comfortable medium of whiling away the hours. There is a popular saying in the area: ”Once the wheat seeds are planted in, the tales come out, once the shoots come out the tales go underground”.

Finally, parts of the collection will provide a unique insight into a social life cadenced by festivals and rituals in which religious leaders, oracles, interpreters and musicians (cymbals, drums, and trumpets) play a defining role.

Deposit contents

The deposit comprises 12 hours of video recordings which can be broken down by genre:

  • 6 hours of everyday conversations of various types (more or less structured): basic, topic (non-debatable), debatable, procedural, ritualized
  • 2 hours of narratives (biographical and autobiographical monologues)
  • 2 hours of traditional discourse (myths, tales, and riddles)
  • 2 hours of elicited materials (picture-based stimuli tasks): the first is a short Sherpa tale, the story of the Jackal and Crow (Kelly & Gawne 2011), which is very much relevant from a cognitive point of view since it involves two perspectives. The second is a specific narrative problem-solving task, the Family Story (San Roque & al. 2012), consisting of 16 images from which different narratives can be formed by a range of participants.

The whole corpus of recordings will be transcribed, annotated (morphologically) and translated into English and Hindi via ELAN. Each recording will be accompanied by ‘thick’ metadata (Nathan & Austin 2004) and pictures.

Deposit history

Other information


Users of any part of the collection should acknowledge Philippe Antoine Martinez as the principal investigator, the data collector and the researcher. Users should also acknowledge the Endangered Languages Documentation Programme (ELDP) as the funder of the project. Individual speakers whose words and/or images are used should be acknowledged by respective name(s). Any other contributor who has collected, transcribed or translated the data or was involved in any other way should be acknowledged by name. All information on contributors will be available in the metadata.


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Philippe Antoine Martinez
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Affiliation: SOAS University of London

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Data from 2018 July 22 to 2018 July 22
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