What the Terms for ‘Rainbow’ in Different Languages Tell Us About Religious Politics

When I was carrying out fieldwork among the Newah of Thecho village in Kathmandu valley, a rainbow appeared and the kids in the village started to shout ‘Lãyelãmã’ with joy. As a student of anthropology, I was intrigued and wanted to find out what it means and how it tied in to Newah culture. So, I asked why they call it Lãyelãmã.

One of my friends in the village told me that it is an informal term, mostly used by children. Lãyelãmã roughly translates to an expression of joy upon seeing a magical thing. However, there are two other names used by the Newah for the rainbow – laḥsāḥ (meaning process of pulling water), which is as scientific as it gets, and kapã (meaning the earthen lid used while cooking, as the rainbow is a half-circle that resembles the lid), a cultural reference to something used daily.

My friends also asked me what the rainbow is called in my language. I told them that it is vanavill and Indradhanush in Tamil and Telugu respectively, the two languages I associate myself with. But their question also caused me to wonder how these names came about.

Environmental determinism, the anthropological concept, postulates that the environment in which a culture is located determines many of its traits such as attire, food, kinship and economic relations. Similarly, naming or cognitively inferring a natural phenomenon such as rainbow (and also the waxing and waning of the moon, a solar eclipse, thunder, rain) is also determined by the environment that a particular culture is located in.

Intrigued by different non-religious and religious names used in Tamil and Telugu cultures for the rainbow, I started enquiring among my friends from various cultures what the rainbow is called in their languages. Some failed to recollect the native term used for rainbow. They asked others and got back to me. When I asked them to break up the term for me, some of them could only provide a rough translation. It also made me realise that across Indian languages, the terms used for the rainbow are heavily subjected to religious politics and cultural hegemony.

Read more: The Wire

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