The Freshwater Trail

A Landscape Glossary

When we lose an evocative lexicon of the land, when we forget, we lose what Barry Lopez calls the “voice of memory over the land.” This is an attempt to keep that lexicon alive 

Arati Kumar-Rao
Photographer & Journalist

Previous story in this series:
The importance of a Landscape Glossary in Forty Names Of Clouds

I began to frequent the deep Thar desert in 2013 with three friends: Pradip Krishen, Payal Mehta and Harsha J. We’d visit almost every month and walk through the desert commons: grasslands and arroyos, rocky areas and dunes, spending hours on our knees examining and photographing plants, lizards, snakes, gerbils, scorpions, mantids, and rocks. We’d scan the horizons and skies for raptors and chinkaras, desert foxes and sandstorms. And at every step, we’d seek out and use the place-names and local names of things.

To spend time in a swathe of land, allowing it to reveal things. About itself. About its people. Its moods. And through names, to begin to know it …

This kindled in me a deep appreciation for the lexis of the western Thar. A few months later, in April 2013, I met Chhattar Singh who further stoked this fire.

“Yeh drishya ka roop hai, bhaasha nahi!” he’d say.

[This is a manifestation of the land, not a language!] 

Over the visits with Chhattar Singh, I realized how intensely evocative and expressive their landscape lexis is. In contrast to bland but precise scientific terms we in the cities use, the local names of things conjure up visions of the land. Their observation, so keen and deep, drives their ability to understand the land and live with it, even thrive in it.

My son is forgetting this language, Chhattar Singh had said ruefully one day.  I realized he was not mourning a boy lost to the big city — it was the loss of an ancient wisdom that he was lamenting. The names these people give clouds, for example, are not merely evocative — they are manifestations of the rhythm of life in the desert. Thus, they can look at a cloud formation and recognize it as a kanThi, which could mean that somewhere out there kalaan was billowing up pregnant with rain, which in turn could mean that farmers prepare their dhoras and their khadeens and pastoralists pack for migration

The loss of such a lexicon, I realized, was more than just the vanishing of words. It foreshadowed, in some way, a lack of a need for it. That inability to describe vividly aspects of a landscape was leaving us bereft, sterile, disconnected. Preserving particular native descriptions for things and phenomena in landscapes, on the other hand, keeps alive a connection with the very creature that sustains us, the land. It keeps us observant, curious, wondrous, respectful of the connections in nature, each vital to the next, cogs in giant interconnected life-wheels.

This glossary is just the beginning of an effort towards that end. It is also a long-term effort; the more time I spend in a land with the native people, the deeper I will learn.

I invite you all to be a part of this journey, this collection, and to contribute to it.

Have you experienced evocative vernacular terms describing particular aspects within landscapes — any landscape — or a natural phenomenon or a wild creature? You can chime in through the comments section on this page, for starters. If you’d rather send me words by email, please do reach me at: arati.rao@gmail.com

From The Thar, Of Clouds & Rain:

  1. teetar pankhi: cirro cumulus clouds, resembling the pattern on a partridge’s wings
  2. kanThi: cumulus clouds on the horizon
  3. ghaTaaTope: many kanThi clouds
  4. kanThli: nimbo stratus clouds
  5. kaLaan: heavy rain clouds coming in from the northwest
  6. eyyloor: cirrus
  7. oomb: low white blanket of clouds, early in the morning
  8. badali: smaller clouds (generic)
  9. baadal: big clouds (generic)
  10. paNi-haari: clouds that resemble women carrying water pots on their heads
  11. paans: consolidated teetar pankhi clouds forming a light uneven blanket
  12. dhundh: clouds slightly heavier than paans
  13. seekote: light winter clouds on the horizon, resembling dunes
  14. ubrelyuo: passing clouds, probably spent
  15. chhoyo: clouds that are just beginning to rain
  16. ghuTyo: un-raining clouds in an asphyxiating stillness
  17. meL khaave: the act of clouds coming together
  18. miLuvDa: cool gathered clouds alternating light ‘n’ shade
  19. chhanvLiya: diffused light from clouds
  20. ghor: dense thunder clouds rumbling in fury
  21. khevaN: lightning
  22. mogh: crepuscular upward rays on the horizon, during sunrise and sunset. The presence of clouds is only hinted at. Clouds stay unseen
  23. dhaarolyou: a small veil of rain bridging cloud and earth
  24. jhaD: short sharp drizzles
  25. jhaDii: repeated showers
  26. lukho: a lone tuft of cloud
  27. baavaL: the cool wind following a rain, carrying the smell of the earth on it, making everyone smile
  28. jaunkh: sandstorm
  29. parlaavon: clouds reflecting far away lightning. Meaning it is probably raining there
  30. loo: the intense warm wind that blows in summer; it serves to ripen kair fruit

From The Thar, Of Landscapes & Water:

  1. magra: gravel or hard, rocky desert
  2. roee: the desert grasslands
  3. thali: the deep desert — the area of dunes
  4. dhora/ tibba: dune
  5. naaN: the valley between two dunes
  6. khaDeen: a depression at the bottom of a slope where rainwater collects and seeps into the land prepping it for seed
  7. beri: a percolation well
  8. taonDa: a collection of beris
  9. pataali kuan: literally, a well of the netherworld; a Hadean well; a fossil water well — 200-400m deep
  10. rejwani paani: percolated water that sits above the gypsum layer underground
  11. paalar paani: surface water
  12. pataali paani: the deep aquifers, fossil waters
  13. bhey: a natural rock cistern
  14. aagor: catchment area, usually hard — a magra — with a slope of just about a foot over a kilometer
  15. Toba: a water harvesting bund with a tomb or a sacred shrine
  16. Tanka: a wide shallow well
  17. naaDi: a lake

Your Contributions:

PUNJABI WORDS FOR RAIN, contributed by Nirlep Singh

  1. bhoor: thin rain, Punjabi
  2. jharhi: long spell of rain, Punjabi
  3. rimjhim, kinmin, boonda baandi: showers, Punjabi
  4. chraaka: sudden burst of rain, Punjabi
  5. chhiTTaan
  6. vachhar, phand, jhamb:  lashing rain, Punjabi
  7. badal phaTna: cloud burst, Punjabi

MONSOON TERMS IN KERALA, contributed by MS. Gopal

  1. edavapathi: heavy SW monsoon, Malayalam
  2. thulavarsham: NE Gentler rain, Malayalam
  3. venal: summer showers, Malayalam
  4. karkaDaka mazha: Aadi month in Tamil?  — need verification

ANIMALS, contributed by Aditya Panda & Sanctuary Asia

  1. guldaar: the rosetted one, leopard, Kumaon

FROM GUJARAT, contributed by Noopur Raval

  1. mushaLdhaar: torrential rain, Gujarati
  2. saavaj, kesari: lion in Kathiyawari, reference in Zaverchand Meghani’s poem ‘CharanKanya’
  3. haran-faaL: at the pace of a deer, Gujarati
  4. haathijaN, ghoDasar: hill, Gujarati
  5. zaapTu/jhaapTu: a quick spell of heavy rain (zaapaT/jhaapaT meaning slap), in Gujarati
  6. bhekhaDvu (v): violently clash (bhekhaD means a hanging rock), in Kathiyawari, Gujarati

FROM BENGAL, via many folks

  1. ilisheguri brishTi: rain so fine, only slightly more than a mist, that beckons hilsa (an Indian shad) to the surface

Simple Pronunciation Guide

Capitalized letters denote harder sounds; Lower case letters denote the softer sounds.

The L and N capitalized are where the tongue hits roof of mouth — sounds not in English.

(As this glossary builds, a more comprehensive pronunciation guide will be posted)

An Invitation To Contribute

This is just the start. With your help, this glossary can grow into a comprehensive collection of evocative terms particular to various landscapes.

Do you have evocative, particular names for different types of rain in your language? For thunder? Or mountains? How about for creatures? Or the sunrise? Do contribute through the comments section on this page, for starters. If you’d rather send words by email, I’m at: arati.rao@gmail.com

We need four things with each contribution:

  1. the local word
  2. the locale from where the word comes
  3. pronunciation
  4. meaning – as detailed as necessary

6 thoughts on “A Landscape Glossary”

  1. MushaLdhaar – torrential rain (in Gujarati) (The L is where tongue hits roof of mouth, same for N)
    Saavaj, Kesari, – Lion (in Kathiyawari, reference in Zaverchand Meghani’s poem ‘CharanKanya’)
    Haran-faaL – at the pace of a deer (in Gujarati)
    HaathijaN, GhoDasar – hill (in Gujarati)
    ZaapTu/JhaapTu – a quick spell of heavy rain (zaapat/jhaapat meaning slap) (in Gujarati)
    BhekhaDvu (v) – violently clash (BhekhaD means a hanging rock) (in Kathiyawari, Gujarati)

    • Arati Kumar-Rao
      July 2, 2015

      How special is this, Noopur. Thank you. Adding it in right away. Also, thanks for using the pronunciation guide perfectly — and sending in all the detail needed for now. Really appreciate it.

  2. Ashutosh
    July 2, 2015

    NimbaL (L with tongue hitting palate) Himachal . Clear sky , usually after days of torrential rain . A proverb from the framers “Pakki sanjh te nimbal panj” when it is a ripe sunset , you get five days of clear sky

    • Arati Kumar-Rao
      July 2, 2015

      This is great, Ashutosh. And the proverb adds a whole new dimension. I have a collection of such from Rajasthan — may add that to the next rev of this glossary.
      Thanks!
      Arati

  3. Many of these are also used in Hindi. For example, mooslaadhar baarish, badli chhaana, jhaDi lagna, boonda-bandi. One that I didn’t see in above list is “fuhaar padna” which means light drizzling.

  4. mrinmayee ranade
    December 9, 2015

    this is a fantastic project. glad to have come across this.
    can i add some marathi words?
    musaLdhaar मुसळधार heavy rains, each drop as heavy as a pounding stone – musaL
    pirpir पिरपिर a boring steady light rain, riprip रिपरिप is also used in the same tone
    rimzim रिमझिम a steady light rain, but pleasant
    vaambaL वांबळ used in marathwada for a cloudy sky, in anticipation of rain
    DhagaaL ढगाळ cloudy, overcast skies. Dhag ढग means cloud
    santatdhar संततधार steady heavy rain
    jhad lagNe झड लागणे steady heavy rain
    aabhaaL bharoon yeNe आभाळ भरून येणे cloudy sky in anticipation of rain