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1.5 Etymology

Zanskar is also often found to be written Zangskar in sociological studies or Zaskar in geographers reports or maps of the Himalaya fifty or so years ago. An etymological study (Snellgrove and Skorupsky, 1980) of the name “Zangskar” reveals that its origin might refer to the natural occurrence of copper within this region, the Tibetan word for which is Zangs. The second syllable however seems to be more challenging as it has various meanings: Zangs-dkar (white copper), Zangs-mkhar (copper palace) or Zangs-sKar (copper star). Crook (1994) partly shares this interpretation but suggests that the origin of this name might also be Zan-mKhar (food palace), because the staple food crops are so abundant in an otherwise rather arid region. Some of the religious scholars of the district, also cited by Snellgrove and Skorupsky (1980) and Crook (1994), held that it was originally bZang-dKar, meaning good (or beautiful) and white. «Good» refers to the shape of the Padum plain which is triangular, the symbol of Dharma and religion, «white» refers to the simplicity, goodness and religious inclinations of the Zanskaris. Thus, even if etymologically it would be more correct to use Zangskar, we decided to adopt the most frequently found spelling for this region which is undoubtedly Zanskar.


1.6 Toponymy

The correct transcription of the names of localities is a rather challenging task when making a survey in a remote part of the Himalaya. This seems to be particularly true for Zanskar as there are notable discrepancies from one study to an other in the spelling of villages, rivers or mountains. An illustration of this problem is already given above for the name of Zanskar itself. The source of these differences is not only due to the nationality of the researcher transcribing a Tibetan name in his mother tongue but is also clearly due to the inherent difficulty of translating Tibetan. In this work we have tried as much as possible to follow a hierarchy that gives priority to the spelling as found in previous geological publications for the same region so as to keep a certain homogeneity within our community. Indeed, certain names, like, for example, that of the Kurgiakh village, could be (and have been) spelled in many ways. As it has, however, also become the name of a member of a sedimentary formation (Garzanti et al. 1986), we will stick to that spelling. The second priority was to use the most frequently found modern spelling of names (as Zanskar). Certain names, however, had to be asked directly from the Zanskaris and their transcription might thus be slightly incorrect.


Phugtal Monastery in Zanskar
Fig 1.8: Hanging between earth and sky, the monastery of Phugtal dates from the XI century A.D.


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©Pierre Dèzes