Jumla-Red Rice, Apples, Yarsagumba and the origins of Nepali

By Royal Mountain Travel July 17, 2013


You have visited Patan Durbar Square and admired its rich collection of temples and palaces in various architectural styles. You have reveled in the festive atmosphere always prevalent around this world heritage monument site, and you have paid homage to the score and more gods around the place. Then, you have taken a tour around the alleyways of Patan (Lalitpur), and you think now you have seen all there is to see of the ‘City of the Arts’.

Well, you are wrong. Here’s something that should pique your interest. Take the lane opposite to the Bhimsen Temple at Patan Durbar Square and walk for about 15 minutes to reach a courtyard called Bakhuwa Bahal. Here, at one end is located a small modest house in which lives a 91-year-old man who is regarded as the foremost culture expert of Nepal. His name is Satya Mohan Joshi. He has published 14 dictionaries, one of Nepal Bhasa, and 13 of other regional languages. In 1970, he went to Karnali in the the far western region to delve into the origins of the Nepali language.

He went to Jumla specifically. Now, this is as remote as it can get in Nepal. Jumla is from where trekkers start their journey to the enchanting Rara Lake in Mugu district. Rara is a lake of glacial origin and the largest in the country. Jumla is also the starting point for getting to the Shey Phoksundo National Park in Dolpa. It is also on the route to Mount Kailash in Tibet, a most sacred pilgrimage site for Hindus the world over.

According to experts like Joshi, this is the region from where Khas Bhasa, the main Nepali dialect, originated. There’s a place above Jumla, known as Sinja, which has been identified as the primary source of origin of Khas Bhasa. This is where Joshi and his five-member team (an anthropologist, a geologist, a linguist, and two culture experts including joshi) spent five months doing their research. It resulted in the publication of five books: one on the historical aspect of the Karnali people; another on the region’s history; one on the geography of the region; one on the language; and one on its anthropology. Quite a haul, wouldn’t you say? One can assume that the remoteness of the area combined with its pristine environment must surely have helped the eminent researchers to be suitably inspired.


Organic Apple Growing in Jumla. Photo by Puspa Sharma

Now, talking about Jumla again, it is famous for its apples; there are many who testify that Jumla apples are among the best in the world. And, a natural offshoot—Jumla has fantastic apple brandy as well. The district is as renowned for the many jadibutis (medicinal herbs) found here. Yarsagumba (Himalayan Viagra) being of course the most famous, as well as the most sought after by hordes of eager-beaver foragers who can be seen clambering all over the hillsides during the months of April, May, and June. They spend long hours crawling through the shrubs, digging with utmost care for an herb that is pretty unique in its nature. The Chinese, who were probably the first ones to know about its immense benefits, call it dong chong xia cao (winter insect, summer grass). Why so? You may well ask.

Well, listen to this: there’s a caterpillar of a moth that lives in the high altitude shrub lands for about five years before becoming a pupa. Now, when it becomes a larva, it is attacked by a fungus which fills its body cavity with mycelium, thus killing it. When the weather gets warmer, mushrooms grow out of the caterpillar’s forehead and emerge from the ground. This is Yarsagumba, a ‘miracle herb’ that is claimed to cure a lot of ailments besides increasing stamina and endurance power. Ask legendary Chinese coach Ma Junren’s army of world record breaking women runners; they were given Yarsagumba regularly as a supplement during training to combat stress.

By and by, people also began testifying to its aphrodisiacal effects; and now, what have you got? An herb that’s so much in demand the world over that a kilo costs some 10,000USD (up from 700USD in 1993). Apparently, collectors are paid one dollar per caterpillar in the field which goes on to fetch some 30USD in the international market. One couldn’t ask for better returns, right? Aside for this prima donna of natural medicine, you’ll also get another prized ingredient of ayurvedic medicine in Jumla. This is shilajit, a black substance that collects on cliff sides around here.

More on Jumla: some distance from Jumla bazaar, you will come across pools formed by natural hot spring water (tatopani). Need it be said that a dip in one of the pools will go a long way in relieving you of fatigue and stress? Quite something, this place, you’ll be thinking. But, there’s more: Jumla s also famous for one other thing—red rice. If you are in the area during harvest season (September-October), you’ll have a gorgeous view of the Tila Valley with its wide expanse of red-rice fields swaying in the breeze. Where did this rice come from now? Well, the answer lies in a temple in the bazaar that’s dedicated to a sage called Chandan Nath Baba. Apparently, he came here some 1300 years ago, bringing with him red rice seeds from far off Kashmir in India. For people living in a remote place like Jumla, this was nothing less than a godsend, and is it any wonder then that the sage has been venerated with a temple in his name?

Title Photo of Yarshagumba by ICIMOD Kathmandu/Flickr


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