Khin Maung Saw – (Mis)Interpretations of Burmese Words: In the case of the term Kala (Kula)


Khin Maung Saw – (Mis)Interpretations of Burmese Words: In the case of the term Kala (Kula)  


  1. Introduction:


“Burma Studies” constitute a relatively small field within the larger field of Southeast Asian Studies.  In my experience as a Burma scholar of many years I have come to realize that the amount of material written  in foreign languages about Indonesia and Thailand, especially on language and literature, far exeeds the material avaible on Burma. Moreover, on reading material available in foreign languages, I have noticed that some information is either incorrect or misleading.  This wrong or misleading information is often quoted and disseminated by subsequent authors, leading to a situation whereby it eventually acquires the status of being true and correct.


There is, in fact, a great deal of material available on the subject of Burmese language and literature; however, it exists only in Burmese.  For most non-Burmese Burma Scholars these standard sources are, unfortunately, beyond their reach.  Unable to speak, read and write Burmese fluently they are obliged to rely only on materials written in one of the European languages.


To emphasize this point I would like to cite the Burma scholar U Tin Htway, who is one of the most experienced Burmese intellectuals teaching abroad, who writes: “For the scholars and students of Burmese language and literature, the field of study is enormous and the resources are abundant.  But, for non-Burmese scholars, say, almost all, the abundant resources of Burmese inscriptions and classical Burmese literatures are, seemingly, beyond their limit, even up to this very day.  Most of them, if not nearly all, had done their work with “hearsay knowledge”, through the informant(s) and unfortunately, for many information they got, they were not able to scrutinize or to check with standard Burmese literary sources, which are well-established and had existed for centuries now. However, their achievements should not be ignored, not even the ones with dubious merit”.1


Although some contributions on the subject of Burmese language and literature, written by some Burmese intellectuals in English, do exist, unfortunately, these persons are mainly scholars of English language and literature rather than scholars of Burmese language and literature.  Hence they are more familiar with the English language and its literature  than with their mother tongue.2  Their contributions have often been referred to by the non-Burmese Burma scholars; as a result, false interpretations, predictions and conclusions occur.


One specific example is the (mis)interpretation of the Burmese word ကုလား Kala (Kula).  Though the word had and has a harmless meaning, some non-Burmese Burma Scholars misinterpreted this term and given it an unsavoury meaning.  In this article I would like to point out its interpretation according to standard Burmese sources, the correct usage of the term used by respected scholars and others as well as misinterpretations used by some scholars unwittingly, as a result of having based their work on  informants who were not scholars and provided information on the basis of “hearsay knowledge”.


  1. Interpretations according to the literature:  


The first hypothesis postulates that the word ကုလား Kala (Kula) came from the Pali word ကုလ Kula meaning “noble race” (this is a short form of ကုလပုတၱ Kula Putta which means “son of the noble race”).  The word was used for the Indians (people from the subcontinent) by the early Buddhist people of Burma (Mons, Burmese, Arakanese, Karens and  Shans etc.) because the Lord Buddha himself was an Indian.


Listed below are some literature sources which support this hypothesis:


(1) The Myanmar Language Commission, Myanmar-English Dictionary, Yangon, 1993, p. 10.

ကုလား / kala/ n 1. native of the Indian subcontinent. 2. court-card; picture card. adj of foreign origin. See also  သေဘၤာ [Pali ကုလ]


(2) The Myanmar Language Commission, ျမန္မာအဘိဓာန္ (Myanmar-Myanmar Dictionary), Yangon, 1991, p. 9

ကုလား /kla;/ n 1‘ အိႏိၵယတိုက္ငယ္ေဒသမွလာသူမ်ား။ 2‘ သာမန္အားျဖင့္ ျမန္မာႏုိင္ငံ၏အေနာက္ဖက္ရွိ တိုင္းႏုိင္ငံမ်ားမွလာသူမ်ား။ 3‘ စကၠဴဖဲတြင္ ဂ်က္၊ ကြင္း၊ ကင္း၊ ဖဲခ်ပ္တို႔ကိုေခၚေသာစကား။ နဝိ – ႏိုင္ငံျခားမွ လာေသာ၊ ႏိုင္ငံျခားမွျဖစ္ေသာ။[ပါ၊  ကုလ]


Translation: ကုလား /kala/ n 1. people from the Indian subcontinent. 2.  The term generally used for the natives of the countries west of Burma. 3. Jack, Queen and King in the playing cards: adj of foreign origin, foreign made [Pali Kula]


(3) U Wun, တကၠသိုလ္ ျမန္မာအဘိဓာန္၊ အပိုင္း ၁။  (The University Burmese-Burmese Dictionary), Rangoon, 1952, vol.1, p. 22.

ကုလား – နံ ၁၊ အိႏိၵယႏိုင္ငံသားမ်ား၊   ၂။ သာမန္အားျဖင့္ ျမန္မာႏုိင္ငံအေနာက္ဖက္ေဒသမ်ားမွလာသူမ်ား။ နဝိ –  ႏိုင္ငံျခား၌ ျဖစ္ေသာ၊ ႏိုင္ငံျခားမွလာေသာ။ [ မြန္၊ ဂလာ။ ပါ၊  ကုလ]

Translation: ကုလား N 1. Indians. 2. General term for the people who came from west of Burma. ——- adj  of foreign origin [Mon Gla; Pali Kula]


(4) U Hoke Sein,  ပါဠိ –  ျမန္မာအဘိဓာန္ ဒုတိယပိုင္း (The Pali-Burmese Dictionary), Rangoon, 1956, vol. 2, p. 329.

ကုလ [ကုလ] (န) အမ်ိဳး။ ျမတ္ေသာအမ်ိဳး။ အိမ္။ မိဘအိမ္။ အလုပ္အေကြၽးဒါယကာ။


Translation: ကုလ [kula] (n) race; noble race; house; parent’s house; male donor or layman.


(5) Judson, A., Burmese-English Dictionary,  Baptist Press, Rangoon, edited 1953. p. 173 (First Edition: 1836).


ကုလား (Pali) n, a race အမ်ိဳး ; one whose race is distinctly marked, a caste person; a native of any country west of Burma; a foreigner, ……..etc.


In fact, the Burmese use the Pali word Kula (meaning holy, great, noble, distinguished etc.) in various forms. The following are some examples:


(a) ကုလသမဂၢ (Kula Thamagga)

great/noble organization

United Nations


(b) ကုလားအုတ္ (ကုလ ဩ႒) (Kula Oatta)

distinguished camel

camel, the distinguished animal


(c) ကုလကုမၼာရီ (Kula Kumari)

noble young lady

young lady of the noble race


(d) ကုလပဗၺတ (Kula Pabbata)

great/distinguished mountain

mountain range


The second hypothesis states that the word ကုလား Kala (Kula) was derived from the original Mon word Gla, meaning people who live in houses made of earth.


Here are some sources which support this hypothesis:


(1) Yule, Henry, Col. and Burnell, A. C.,  Hobson-Jobson, Calcutta, 1990 (First Edition 1886), p. 495.


“The true history of the word has for the first time been traced by Prof. Forchhammer to Gola, the name applied in old Pegu inscriptions to the Indian Buddhist immigrants, a name which he identifies with Sanskrit Gauda, the ancient name of northern Bengal, hence the famous city of Gaur”.


(2) The Kalyani Inscription, Pegu, 14. century, written in Mon language.


(Translation):  “The heroes Sona and Uttara were sent to Ramaña, which forms a part of Suvannabhumi, to propagate the holy faith …….. This town is called to this day Gola mattikanagara, because of the many houses it contained made of earth in the fashion of houses of the Gola people.”


(3) U Wun, တကၠသိုလ္ ျမန္မာအဘိဓာန္၊ အပိုင္း ၁။  (The University Burmese-Burmese Dictionary), Rangoon, 1952, vol.1, p. 22.

ကုလား – နံ ၁၊ အိႏိၵယႏိုင္ငံသားမ်ား၊   ၂။ သာမန္အားျဖင့္ ျမန္မာႏုိင္ငံအေနာက္ဖက္ေဒသမ်ားမွလာသူမ်ား။ နဝိ –  ႏိုင္ငံျခား၌ ျဖစ္ေသာ၊ ႏိုင္ငံျခားမွလာေသာ။ [ မြန္၊ ဂလာ။ ပါ၊  ကုလ]


Translation: kula; N 1. Indians. 2. General term for the people who come from west of Burma. ——- adj  of foreign origin [Mon Gla; Pali Kula]


(4) The word for the people from the subcontinent in the Modern Mon language is Gola.  Po Karens named the Indians Kula, Sgaw Karens called the Indians Kola and the Thai word for Indians is Kal.


The third hypothesis claims that the word Kala (Kula) is the corruption of the word Cola / Chola.


Here are the sources which support this statement:


(1) Yule, Henry, Col. and Burnell, A. C.,  Hobson-Jobson, Calcutta, 1990 (First Edition 1886), p. 257.

Chola, as the name of Tamil people and their royal dynasty appears as Choda in one of Asoka’s incriptions, and in the Telugu inscriptions of the Chalukya dynasty.”


(2) Myanmar-English Dictionary, Department of the Myanmar Language Commision, Ministry of Education, Union of Myanmar, “A History of the Myanmar Alphabet, p.iv.

“In South India, the Andhra dynasty arose after the dissolution of the Maurya kingdom.  Then arose such dynasties as Pallava, Kadamba, Calukya, Rashtrakuta and Cola.  During the reign of those dynasties there developed from Brahmi such scripts  as Pacchimi scripts in the west, Madhya Pradesh script in the middle region and, in the south, such scripts as Telugu, Kanati, academic Grantha, Tamil which are contained in Kadamba, Calukya and Rashtrakuta.  These Indian scripts descended from Brahmi and spread to Tibet, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Indonesia along with Indian beliefs and culture in the period of 100 A.D to 800 A.D and helped in the development of indigenous scripts in those regions “.


Since the early Indians who came to Southeast Asia by sea route and brought scripts were from Southern India, it is very possible that those people were called Cola / Chola people by the natives.  So, it cannot be ruled out that Cola / Chola is the origin of the Mon word Gola/Gla, the Karen word Kola / Kula and the Burmese word Kala / Kula.


As I have pointed out from the literature the word Kala  is derived either from the Pali word Kula or from the Cola / Chola dynasty of South India, which the Mons adapted to Gola or Gla and the Burmese in turn pronounced as Kala.  All of the above hypotheses demonstrate that the word Kala had and has no negative connotations.  It could be said to have a harmless or even a positive meaning.

The word Kala is an old word.  Even in Pagan Stone Inscriptions (12th to 14th century A.D.) words such asကုလားကေျခသည္ (Kala Kachethi meaning Indian dancers) ကုလားပသာသည္ (Kala Pathathi meaning Indian drummers) can be detected.  Temples built in an Indian style are known as ကုလားေက်ာင္း (Kala Kyaung meaning Indian monastery).  If the word Kala were to possess a derogatory meaning, the Burmese would not have named their temples using the prefix Kala.


King Narathu, son of King Alaung Sithu from the Pagan Dynasty, was namedကုလား က်မင္း (Kalaja Min; the king killed by the Kalas) by later historians because he was assassinated by the Indians.  The Arakanese kingနရမိတ္လွ Nara-meik-hla alais မင္းေစာမြန္ Min Saw Mun (Man Saw Muan  in Arakanese pronunciation), the last king of the Laungkrat  ေလာင္းၾကက္ Dynasty, and who was also the founder of Mrauk U

ေျမာက္ဦး Dynasty in A.D. 1430, was given the pseudonym ကုလား ျပည္ေရာက္မင္း (Kalapyiyauk Min, the king who took refuge in the land of Kalas) by later historians since he was obliged to take refuge in Bengal in order to escape a Burmese invasion.  Nobody would have dared to apply such an epithet to their king  if the word Kala were perceived in any way vulgar.


[Compare here: နရသီဟပေတ့ King Nara-thiha-patei of Pagan, who was also known as  တရုတ္ေျပးမင္း (Tayok-pyay Min, the king who ran away from the Chinese) because he had to leave the capital city, Pagan (Bagan) as a result of the invasion of the Chinese (the armies of Kublai Khan) in A.D. 1287].


The name of one of Burma’s most famous historians, who wrote three important chronicles during the Naungyan (Second Ava) Dynasty was ဦးကုလား U Kala.  If the word Kala were to have a derogatory meaning, this famous Burmese historian would certainly have sought to change his name.


The Burmese, the Mon and the Arakanese, in particular kings, traditionally believed that they were the descendants of the Sakya Sakis, the race from which the Lord Buddha came. This means they believed themselves to be descendants of an Indian race.  In this case, what posible reason that have for degrading or discriminating against the inhabitants of the subcontinent?


In the Burmese language, there are many cases where the term Kala is used either as prefix or affix to form a new noun by demonstrating that it is of foreign origin, coming, in general, from the countries lying west of Burma, particularaly the Indian subcontinent. The following are some examples.


Type A (prefix)


(1) ကုလားစပါး

Indian rice/paddy

rice/paddy of Indian origin



(2) ကုလားတည္

Indian preserve/pickle

pickle or preserve of fruits/vegetables in Indian style

Chutney or Indian style pickle


(3) ကုလားထိုင္

Indian/foreigner sit

the thing which foreigners use for sitting



(4) ကုလား ပဲ
Indian bean

beans eaten by Indians passionately

gram, chick pea


(5) ကုလားျဖဴ

Indian white

the foreigners who are white

Europeans, Caucasian


Type B (affix)


(1)   ဆိတ္ကုလား

goat Indian

goat of Indian/foreign origin



(2)  ဒံုးကုလား

lever Indian/foreign

lever of foreign origin

mechanical jack, motor car jack


(3)  ငွက္ကုလား

bird Indian/foreign

bird of Indian/foreign origin

black-necked stork (Xenorhynchus asiaticus)


(4)  ဗြတ္ကုလား

bulbul (a kind of small bird) Indian/foreign

bulbul of foreign origin

Eurasian jay (Garrulus leucotis)


(5)  ေက်းကုလား

parrot/parakeet Indian/foreign

parrot/parakeet of Indian/foreign origin

slaty-headed parakeet (Psittacula himalayana)


III. Some examples of the usage of Kala in standard literature:


(1) Yaw Atwinwun U Pho Hlaing, ဥတုေဘာဇနသဂၤဟက်မ္း (Utu Bawzana Thingaha Kyam), Written in 1876 under King Mindon in the Court of Mandalay. Later, printed in Rangoon 1901, p. 89.

အေနာက္ျပည္သားမ်ားကို ျမန္မာတို႔က ကုလားေခၚသည္။

Translation:   The people from the west are named Kala by the Burmese.


(2) Pagan Wunhtaukmin U Tin,  ျမန္မာမင္းမ်ား အုပ္ခ်ဳပ္ပံုစာတမ္း (Myanmar Minmyar Okchokpon Sardan, How Burmese kings administrated),  Rangoon, 1931, pp. 33-35.

ကုလားမ်ိဳး ၆၀ ရွိေၾကာင္းကို  —–

Translation: —–that there are more than 60 Kala [Indian] races.


(3)အေရးေတာ္ပံု ငါးေစာင္တဲြ (Ah-yedawbon Ngasaung Dwai), Thudhammawaddy Press, Rangoon, 1920, p. 356.

ကုလားပန္းေသးၿမိဳ႕သားမ်ား —–

Translation: The Kalas [Indians] and the Panthays [Chinese Muslims] settlers in the town —-)


(4) Manlei Sayadaw, မဟာသုတကာရီ မာဃေဒဝလကၤာသစ္ (Maha Thutakari Magha Dewa Lingathit), Rangoon,1904, (reprinted 1938), p. 37

ကုလား ပသီဘရင္ဂ်ီက —–

Translation: The Kalas [Indians], Pathis [Muslims] and the Bayinjis  [Portuguese /Catholics] are —


(5) Taw Sein Ko,လႊတ္ေတာ္မွတ္တမ္း (Hluttaw Hmattan), Rangoon, 1915, p. 29.

သူပုန္ကုလားအဂၤလိပ္လူမ်ိဳးမ်ားတို႔ကို ——-

Translation: The rebels, the Kalas [Indians] and Englishmen —


(6)က်ည္းကန္ရွင္ႀကီး၊ အမရပူရသို႔ေပးေမတၱာစာ  (To Amarapura with love), “Homily Written Letter in a Sympathetic Vein”, of “Kyeegan Shingyi”, a famous Buddhist monk, written  during his visit in Rangoon).

အာရမဏီ ဘရင္ဂ်ီ၊ ကပၸလီ ခလာသီ၊ ေဇာ္ဂ်ီ ကလယ္၊ ကုလားႏြယ္ တိုင္းမသိ၊ ထုပတိႏွင့္ ——

Translation: Armenians, Portuguese, Black Africans, also Tamils and plenty of other Kala (Indian) races, I don’t know all of them but some (has turban, beard and moustache) similar to that of the alchemist “Zawgyi”, all kind of foreign sailors (in Rangoon habour)  ——-


  1. Some examples used by respected persons:


(1) General Aung San, the father of Burmese independence:


On the 13. July 1947, six days before he was assassinated, General Aung San, the national hero of Burma, gave a speech which in the event turned out to be his last speech.  In that speech he pointed out that Burmese people were prodigal and wasteful and therefore some import items should be cut after attaining Burmese independence.


ဆီကို ကုလားျပည္က ဝယ္ရတယ္၊ (Hsi ko kalapyi ka wei ya tei); which can be roughly translated as “cooking oil is imported from ‘the land of Kala‘ [India or the subcontinent]”.


If the word Kala had a vulgar association, General Aung San would not have used it in his speech.


(2) U Nu, the first prime minister of the Union of Burma:


In his famous book ငါးႏွစ္ရာသီ ဗမာျပည္ (literally: Burma, during these five years) which was translated by J. S. Furnival as “Burma under the Japanese”  U Nu wrote on page 17:

ကန္ထရုိက္တာကုလားသည္ သူ၏အလုပ္ကို ဆက္မလုပ္ေတာ့ဘဲ မႏၲေလးမွ ထြက္ေျပးျခင္းျဖစ္ေလသည္။


Translation: The Kala [Indian] contractor did not want to do his job any more and ran away from Mandalay.


Also on page 205 he wrote:

အုပ္ခ်ဳပ္ေရးစီစၪ္မႈအဖဲြ႕ (Preparatory Committee)ကိုဖဲြ႕ၿပီး တလေလာက္ရွိေသာအခါ တေန႕သ၌ လကၡဏာ ဖတ္တတ္ေသာ ကုလား နာမည္ႀကီးတဦးကို သူ၏႐ံုးခန္းအတြင္း၌ ေဒါက္တာဘေမာ္သည္ေခၚ၍ (သူသည္ေခ်ာင္းး၍ အသတ္ခံရမည္ေလာဟု) တိုင္ပင္ဘူး၏။

Translation: One day about a month after the formation of the Preparatory Committee,  Dr. Ba Maw consulted a famous Kala [Indian] palmist in his (prime minister’s) office (as to whether he will be assassinated).


(3) U Thein Pe Myint, a well known author, journalist and former general secretary of the Burmese Communist Party:


In his famous book ဘံုဝါဒႏွင့္ဒို႔ဗမာ (Communism and “We Burmese [Association]”), he wrote on page 170:

ကုလားဆင္းရဲသားမ်ားကား ျမန္မာျပည္၌လာေရာက္ေနထိုင္ရေသာေက်းဇူးကိုေမ့ၾကဟန္မရွိ။  ဗမာမ်ားကိုရန္မမူ။ တခါတခါ ဗမာမ်ားႏွင့္ဆိုးတူေကာင္းဘက္ ေဆာင္ရြက္ၾကေလသည္။ ေရနံေခ်ာင္း တညင္စေသာေရနံေျမသပိတ္၌၎၊ အျခားသပိတ္တို႔္ ၌၎၊ ကုလားအလုပ္သမားႏွင့္ဗမာအလုပ္သမားသည္ တပူးတ ေပါင္းတည္းရွိသည္မွာထင္ရွား၏။


Translation: The poor Kalas [Indians] noticed the gratitude (of Burma and the Burmese people) that they could come to Burma, could work there and settle there, so they never troubled any Burmese.  Some times they showed their solidarity with their Burmese counterparts.  It was proven in many strikes, such as in the oil field workers’ strikes in Yenangyaung and Syriam that Kala [Indian] workers were struggling alongside Burmese workers.


  1.  Some examples from the important documents:


ဖက္ဆစ္တိုက္ဖ်က္ေရး ျပည္သူ႕လြတ္ေျမာက္ေရး အဖြဲ႕ခ်ဳပ္၏ေက်ညာစာတမ္း အမွတ္ ()၊  အပိုဒ္ ()၊  အပိုဒ္ခဲြ ()၊  ၁၉၄၄ ခုႏွစ္ ဩဂုတ္လ ၇ ရက္၊ [Declaration of the Anti Fascist Peoples’ Freedom League, Declaration no. 1, August 7, 1944, Clause 2 (O)], where it was written:3

ကရင္၊ ရွမ္း၊ ေတာင္သူ၊ ကခ်င္၊ ခ်င္း၊ မြန္၊ တရုပ္၊ ကုလား စေသာ  လူနည္းစုမ်ား၏ ႏိုင္ငံေရး၊ စီးပြားေရး၊ လူမႈဆက္ ဆံေရး အခြင့္အေရးမ်ားကို အစိုးရက အထူး ကာကြယ္ေစာင့္ေရွာက္ေပးျခင္း။

Translation:  The government is obliged to protect the political, economical and social rights of the minority ethnic groups such as Karens, Shans, Palaungs, Taungthus, Kachins, Chins, Mons, Tayok [Chinese] and Kalas  [Indians].


ေျမေအာက္ကြန္ျမဴနစ္ပါတီ၏ေက်ညာခ်က္၊ ၁၉၄၅ခု ေဖေဖာ္ဝါရီလ ၂၇ ရက္။ အခဏ္း (၆) အပိုဒ္ (၄)၊
[Declaration of the Underground Communist Party of Burma, February 27, 1945, Paragraph (6), Clause (4), where it was written:4

ကုလားစစ္တပ္ကိစၥ။ ကုလားစစ္တပ္သည္ ဂ်ပန္စစ္တပ္ႏွင့္အတူ ဆုတ္ခ်င္လည္းဆုတ္ခြါသြားမည္၊ သို႔မဟုတ္ ဗမာျပည္တြင္ ဖရိုဖရဲျဖစ္ခ်င္လည္းျဖစ္သြားလိမ့္မည္၊ ကုလားစစ္တပ္ဖရိုဖရဲျဖစ္ ခဲ့လွ်င္ ဗမာျပည္တြင္ အဓိကရုဏ္းမ်ား ျဖစ္ႏုိင္စရာလမ္းရွိသည္။  ျဖစ္ႏိုင္ပါလွ်င္ ဂ်ပန္ကိုေတာ္လွန္တိုက္ခုိက္ေရးတြင္ ကုလားစစ္တပ္သည္ ငါတို႔ႏွင့္အတူ ပူးေပါင္းလုပ္သည္အထိ ႀကိဳးစားၾကရမည္။


Translation:  With regard to the Army of the Kalas  [Indians]:5 There are two possibilities:  the Army of the Kalas [Indians] (ie. the Indian National Army lead by Subas Chandra Bose) will either retreat together with the Japanese Army or they will split inside Burma.  If the Army of the Kalas [Indians] should split up, this may lead to riots in Burma.  If possible, we must try to organize the Army of the Kalas [Indians] so that they will join us in the anti-Japanese revolution.


  1. Misinterpretations:


(a) created by the “ultra” nationalists:


During the British colonial period Indian immigration to Burma was sufficiently large in number so that some “ultra” nationalists took to creating a new definition for the word Kala.  Some claimed that the origin of the word Kala came from the Burmese verb  ကူး (ku); meaning to cross over, and လာ (la); meaning to come, which can be translated as “the one who came across the sea”.  This definition, although harmless, was an enforced Burmanisation.  Even today, some people use this colloquial explanation.  However, there is definitely no scholarly basis for this definition.


If the above were at all plausible, then, by the same token, the Burmese word for Black African, ကပၸလီ Kappali, derived from the original Arabic word Kafir meaning infidel or non-believer of Islam, could be claimed to derive from the Burmese verb ကပ္ (kap) meaning “to approach” or “to stay near” and the Burmese word ပလီ (pali) which means “to talk in sugar-coated words”.  In this way, it might be possible to misinterpret the word Kappali to mean “he who stays near and uses sugar-coated words”, which is not the case.


Here I would like to cite Hobson-Jobson of Col. Henry Yule and A. C. Burnell, page 495 where it was written:  Kula, Kla, n.p  Burmese name of a native of Continental India; and hance misapplied also to the English and other Westerns who have come from India to Burma; in fact used generally for a Western foreigner.

The origin of the term has been much debated.  Some have supposed to be connected with the name of the Indian race, the Kols; another suggestion has connected it with Kalinga (see Kling); and a third with the Skt. kula, ‘caste or tribe’; whilst the Burmese popular etymology renders it from ku, ‘to cross over’ and la, to come, therefore ‘the people that come across (the sea)’.  But the true history of the word has for the first time been traced by Prof. Forchhammer to Gola, the name applied in old Pegu inscriptions to the Indian Buddhist immigrants, a name which he identifies with Sanskrit Gauda, the ancient name of northern Bengal, hence the famous city of Gaur (see GOUR, c.).


14th cent, –  “The heroes Sona and Uttara were sent to Ramaña, which forms a part of Suvannabhumi, to propagate the holy faith …….. This town is called to this day Gola mattikanagara, because of the many houses it contained made of earth in the fashion of houses of the Gola people.” – Inscr. at Kalayani near Pegu, in Forschammer, ii.5.


(b) created by the Indian community in Burma:


Although the word Kala has a harmless meaning, the people from the subcontinent do not like to be called Kala.  They feel insulted because the word Kala means “coloured” or “blackie” in their Indic languages such as Hindi, Urdu and Bengali.  Especially, during the colonial era the British colonial masters used to name them “Coloured People.  Therefore, although the Burmese word Kala has a harmless meaning whenever they hear the word Kala it becomes ‘salt in the wound’ for them.  In particular, Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis living in Burma often complain to foreigners, especially to non-Burmese Burma Scholars that they feel discriminated by the people of Burma, especially by the Bamas (the Burmese), the Rakhines (the Arakanese) and the Mons, calling them Kala ( meaning “blackie” in their own interpretation).  Such a misinterpretation was never intended by the people of Burma (the Burmese, Mons, Karens, Shans and Arakanese (Rakhines) etc.), in fact, on reflection some people from Northern India and Pakistan are much fairer in complexion than some people of Burma, especially some Mons, Burmese and Arakanese (Rakhines)!!


This reaction on part of the people from the subcontinent living in Burma is, I believe a hypersensitive one and could even be considered as ethnocentric.  For, it the above argument were true, then the following misinterpretation could occur:


(1) The Burmese term for Chinese is Tayok.  This word could be claimed to have its derivation in the Burmese word  တ  (ta) meaning “one” and the Burmese word ယုတ္ (yoat) which means “to have bad manners”.   So, the word Tayok  will then be misinterpreted to mean “the one with bad manners”, which is not the case. Moreover, the Chinese community in Burma have never complained about this word, instead they are proud to say in Burmese:  “We are Tayok“.

(2) The Thais call the Burmese Phama in their language.  The pronunciation Phama can be misinterpreted in the Burmese language either as ဖာမ (Phama: meaning  “whore”) orဖားမ (Pha’ma: meaning “female frog”) .  However, the Burmese have never complained about this word!!


VII.  Some scholars (unwittingly) misled by informants:


(1) Desai, W. S, India and Burma, Calcutta, 1954, p. 37-38.


“Burmans call Indians Kalas.  This term has been interpreted into two different ways.  Ku in Burmese means to cross over; and la is to come. So Kala is the one who has crossed over and come into the country, that is, a foreigner.  The other interpretation is that it is the Sanskrit Kula meaning clan or caste.  Hence it is thought that the term was applied to Indians since they observe caste.  Kalas therefore would mean “the caste people”.  Most probably the first interpretation is the correct one. Kala simply means a foreigner.  Europeans are often called by Burmans Kala phyu, i.e. white foreigners.  The term Kala has indeed become in Burma a term of reproach and should be banned.  When the Japanese were in occupation of the country from 1942 to 1945, they forbade the use of this term, substituting Indos .”


I have underlined Prof. Desai’s above statement since it is incorrect.  In order to substantiate my critism, I would like to cite some examples from Burmese newspapers pusblished during the Japanese occupation (1942-45).  See also in Ludu U Hla’s သတင္းစာမ်ားေျပာျပတဲ့စစ္အတြင္းဗမာျပည္ ဒုတိယတြဲ၊ မႏၴေလး၊ ၁၉၆၈၊ စာမ်က္ႏွာ  ၁၉၊ ၄၆၊ ၉၂၊ ၁၈၆ ၊ ၂၉၂၊ ၃၀၈   ။(Burma during the war, as reported in the newspapers, vol. II, Mandalay, 1968 p. 19, 46, 92, 186, 292, 308)


(a)  ျမန္မာ့အလင္းသတင္းစာ၊  ႏိုဝင္ဘာလ ၅ ရက္၊ ၁၉၄၂ ခု၊ ၾကာသပေတးေန႕၊ (Myanmaahlin, “The New Light of Burma”, November 5, 1942, Thursday).

ႏိုဝင္ဘာလ ၂ ရက္ေန႔ ေန႕လည္ ၁ နာရီအခ်ိန္တြင္ ကုန္စည္ႀကီးၾကပ္ေရးကိစၥ ႏွင့္ပတ္သက္၌ အစည္းအေဝးတရပ္ က်င္းပရာ ရန္ကုန္ၿမိဳ႕ရွိ ျမန္မာ၊ တရုပ္၊ ကုလား ကုန္သည္ႀကီးမ်ား၊  ပြဲစားႀကီးမ်ား တက္ေရာက္ၾကသည္ကိုေတြ႕ျမင္ ရေၾကာင္းး။


Translation: The meeting for controlling of price and consumer goods was held on the 2nd. of November at 1 pm.   Burmese, Tayok (Chinese) and Kala [Indian] merchants/brokers in Rangoon attended that meeting.


(b) ဗမာ့ေခတ္သတင္းစာ၊ ႏုိဝင္ဘာလ၊ ၈ ရက္၊ ၁၉၄၂ ၊ တနဂၤေႏြေန႕။ (Bamakhit,  “The Burma Times”, November 8. 1942, Sunday):

တရုပ္ကျပား၊ ကုလားကျပား တို႔မွာ ဗမာမ်ားႏွင့္ ေနရာတိုင္းမွာလိုလို ဝင္ဆန္႔ႏိုင္ေစကာမူ အဂၤလိပ္ကျပားတို႔မွာ ခြဲခဲြျခားျခားေနတတ္၏။


Translation: Although Tayok-hybrids [Sino-Burmese] and Kala-hybrids [Indo-Burmese] have no problems to assimilating into Burmese society, the Anglo-Burmese prefer segregation. They never mix with the natives.


(c)  ဗမာ့ေခတ္သတင္းစာ၊ ႏုိဝင္ဘာလ၊ ၂၉ ရက္၊ ၁၉၄၂ ၊ တနဂၤေႏြေန႕။   (ဝန္ႀကီးသခင္ဘစိန္၏မိန္႔ခြန္း) (Bamakhit, “The Burma Times”, November 29. 1942, Sunday) (The speech of Minister Thakhin Ba Sein)
ဗမာပိုင္၊ ကုလားပိုင္ အစရွိတဲ့သေဘၤာေတြကို သည္ဌာနက သြားလာဘို႔ အမိန္႔ေတြ ထုတ္ေပးမယ္။


Translation:  Soon, our ministry will issue an order so that Burmese and Kala [Indian] owned steamers can sail along the rivers.


(d)  ျမန္မာ့အလင္းသတင္းစာ၊ ဇန္နဝါရီလ ၈ ရက္၊ ၁၉၄၃။ (Myanmaahlin, “The New Light of Burma”, January 8. 1943)

ကုလား ဒုကၡသည္မ်ား  —–


Translation: Kala [Indian] refugees —–


If the usage of the term Kala had been banned and substituted by the new terminology Indos by the Japanese (as claimed by Prof. Desai), those news papers would have had no other choice but to use the term Indos instead of Kala, otherwise the editors and reporters might have faced arrest and torture at the hands of the Kempetai (Japanese Military Police).


(2) Esche, A., Wörterbuch Burmesisch-Deutsch (Burmese-German Dictionary), Leipzig, German Democratic Republic, 1976, p. 40:


ကုလား  <P> vulg Inder m; Mann m  aus dem Westen


According to Dr. A. Esche, the word ကုလား (Kala) came from Pali, meaning Indian or man from the west and it is a vulgar word.


In the light of Gen. Aung San’s, U Nu’s and U Thein Pe Myint’s usages (mentioned above), users of Dr. Esche’s dictionary could be confused and may think that Gen. Aung San, U Nu and U Thein Pe Myint should be condemned either as racists or as persons with negative attitudes towards people from the subcontinent.6  In fact, Gen. Aung San as well as his successor U Nu were very close to fellow Indian politicians including Ghandi, Nehru and Mohamad Ali Jinnah and they respected these Indian leaders.  Moreover, as a communist, U Thein Pe Myint was very close to his comrades from the Indian Communist Party.


VIII. Conclusion:


According to the standard literature, the Burmese wordကုလား Kala (Kula) is the name for a native of the subcontinent, and is a harmless word.  Misinterpretations of the term were only to evolve only during the colonial era, firstly as a result of overly sensitive Indians employing  their own interpretations, and secondly by “ultra” nationalists who created wholly new definitions of the term.  Those incorrect interpretations were then amplified and disseminated by non-Burmese Burma scholars who failed to check with the acknowledged scholars or in standard works on Burmese language and literature.


I have written this essay in the spirit of the genuine ေစတနာ (cetana) meaning “good will or good intention” for the sake of all those working in the very small field of “Burma Studies”, in particular for “non-Burmese Burma scholars and students”, since most of the standard works and classical Burmese literature is beyond their reach.


Moreover, I have also written this article on the basis of the four “Brahma chariya” or “the four cardinal virtues or sublime states of mind”  namely (i)  ေမတၱာ (metta) “loving-kindness” to all in the small field of “Burma Studies”, (ii) ကရုဏာ (karuna) “compassion or sympathy” for all those who have made misinterpretations unwittingly, (iii)  မုဒိတာ (mudita) “rejoicing at some one’s success or prosperity” for their achievements and contributions and (iv) ဥေပကၡာ (upekkha) “detachment or indifference or ignorance” for those who are still stubborn and do not want to correct their misinterpretations.



1 U Tin Htway, “Trash from Treasure, In the Case of Judson’s Burmese English Dictionary“, in “Tradition and Modernity in Myanmar”, The International Conference on Myanmar, Berlin, 1993.

2 See and compare: U Tin Htway, A Glimpse of General Observations on Burmese pum, South Asian Digest of Regional Writing, Heidelberg, Vol. 9, pp. 16, 25-27.

3 See also Thakhin Tin Mya, Anti-Fascists Revolution, Head Quarter and Ten Divisions, (in Burmese), Rangoon, 1968, p. 21.

4 Ibid, p. 51.

5 Japanese trained Indian National Army (INA) headed by Subas Chandra Bose.

6 Dr. Annemarie Esche was the chief supervisor and consultant on Mr. Jens Lorenz’s thesis on Gen. Aung San;  Dr. Esche and Jens Lorenz translated Gen. Aung San’s speeches from Burmese into German.  U Thein Pe Myint was a communist who was to become a close friend of both Dr. A. Esche and her husband Dr. Otto Esche, who served as first secretary of the then East German Embassy in Rangoon (1962-66 and 1975-79).  U Thein Pe Myint’s wife, Daw Khin Kyi Kyi, was also mentioned by Dr. A. Esche as one of the consultants in her foreword to her above-mentioned dictionary.  One wonders from which informant Dr. A. Esche received her information?  Certainly, neither from the scholars mentioned in her foreword nor from the standard literature would substantiate such an interpretation.  One can only assume that she obtained this interpretation either from the Indian (people from the subcontinent) community living in Rangoon or  some “hearsay scholars”.




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