If you have taken the road from Kathmandu to Pokhara you may have noticed, about 5 km east of Damauli (the Tanahun District town), a small gated park on the north side of the road. In it is the bust of a famous 19th century literary giant of Nepal, Bhanubhakta Acharya, and the image of a lowly grass-cutter about whom Bhanubhakta wrote in one of the most beloved and famous of all Nepali poems. Virtually every schoolchild knows the poem, which in English goes like this:
Devoting his life to cutting grass, he earned some money;
And hoping to be remembered, he dug a well.
The grass-cutter is poor at home, but so rich in spirit.
I, Bhanubhakta have done nothing with my wealth.
I have no well, nor inns nor rest houses
Whatever wealth and riches I have are in my home.
What a lesson this grass-cutter has given!
‘Tis a shame to sit idle without doing some good deed.
The poem is called ‘Ghasi Kuwa’ (literally ‘Grassy Well’ or, better, ‘The Grass-Cutter’s Well’), and the memorial park is near the site of the original ghasi kuwa.
Bhanubhakta was born nearby, in 1814, into an educated Brahmin family of Tanahun District. He died there in 1868 after a productive literary life, much of it in Kathmandu. As a boy and young man he was taught by Nepalese and Indian scholars of Sanskrit. During his life, besides being a householder and family man, he wrote poetry and translated Sanskrit texts. And though ‘Ghasi Kuwa’ is famous, his most notable accomplishment was translating the ancient Sanskrit epic, Ramayana, into colloquial Nepali. In so doing he established the basis for modern written Nepali.
This book on Bhanubhakta’s life is by one of his direct descendants, the diplomat and linguist Jayaraj Acharya PhD. It is a remarkable achievement, pieced together in part from fragments of manuscripts and obscure references in old accounts and oral history. In three short chapters, the historical and cultural context of Bhanubhakta’s life is told, including by his personal and literary accomplishments.
Along the way, the biographer points out that unlike his predecessors who were unable to translate the Ramayana in a fashion easily accessed by the common Nepalese, “Bhanubhakta was successful in translating the story of the Ramayana into the Nepali language spoken by the people of his time. This language was largely free from the influence of Sanskrit or Urdu/Hindi. Even if Bhanubhakta used some words of Hindi/Urdu such as hajur [sir or ma’m] and malik [boss, master], these were already assimilated into Nepali so they did not sound foreign to the readers. The Nepali readers found the language of Bhanubhakta’s Ramayana very clear, simple and living (actually spoken by the contemporary native speakers of Nepali). Because of this quality Bhanubhakta’s poetry was very powerful and attractive to scholars as well as ordinary people.”
Professor Michael Hutt also notes Bhanubhakta’s literary importance in his book, Nepali: A National Language and Its Literature (1988). He writes there that “Those who represent Bhanubhakta as a jan kavi , a folk poet, argue that his language is so imbued with nepalipan (‘Nepali-ness’) that it is comprehensible even to the illiterate when read aloud, and they attribute great popularity to his Ramayana among the common people of Nepal.”
The biography has six Appendices, five with selected poetry in translation, including a part of the Ramayana epic. The final Appendix is ‘A Tentative List of Fragments of Manuscripts from the House of the Descendants of Gandadatta Acharya,’ illustrated.
For all who appreciate the history of Nepali literature and poetry, this is an important read. ■
Jayaraj Acharya is also the author of ‘Traditional grammars: English and Nepali’ (1980), ‘A Descriptive Grammar of Nepali and an Analyzed Corpus’ (1991), ‘The Nepala-Mahatmya of the Skandapurana: Legends on the Sacred Places and Deities of Nepal’ (translated from Sanskrit to English, 1992), ‘Manakamana-Mahatmya’ (Sanskrit text and English translation, 2000), ‘Yadunath Khanal: Jeevan ra Vichar’ (Yadunath Khanal: Life and Thoughts, in Nepali, 2003), and Nepal’s Foreign Policy: A Reflection’ (2010). He may be contacted at email@example.com.