Five specific sins; seven treasures of a king: Words by the numbers in Asia
In this instalment of his monthly column, author Adam Jacot de Boinod hunts down quirky figures of speech from across a continent. Look out for Capital Letters every month.
In a continent as vast, ancient and diverse as Asia, it’s no surprise that many cultures have glossaries of terms that highlight unique customs. Particularly across South-East Asia, many of these notions are linked to numbers.
In Vietnam, for instance, there is the trinity of fundamental societal bonds referred to as am-cuong: prince and minister, father and son, and husband and wife. The country’s mythology is dominated by a set of four supernatural creatures (tu-linh): dragon, unicorn, tortoise, phoenix.
In Tulu, spoken widely in Karnataka, pancamahapataka is the term for a set of five very specific sins considered to be the greatest: murdering a Brahmin, stealing gold, drinking alcohol, seducing the wife of one’s spiritual mentor, and associating with a person who has committed such sins.
In China, one’s closest relations traditionally number six, and are called liuqin: father, mother, elder brothers, younger brothers, wife, children.
Haft rang is the Persian term for the seven colours of the heavenly bodies: black (from Saturn); brown (Jupiter); red (Mars); yellow (the Sun); white (Venus); blue (Mercury); and green (the Moon). In Sinhalese, saptavidha-ratnaya represent the seven gems or treasures of a king: chariot wheels, wife, jewels, elephants, horses, son/s, and prime minister.
Ashtāng in Hindi indicates a prostration in salutation or adoration, that involves touching the ground with the eight principal parts of a person, which include, rather poetically, knees, hands, feet, chest, eyes, head, words and mind.
The nine precious gems, nasāya-ratna in Sanskrit, are deemed to be pearl, ruby, topaz, diamond, emerald, lapis lazuli, coral, sapphire and gomed or hessonite. Each is believed to have different healing properties. Also nine are the basic commodities that Indonesian custom considers essential for everyday living. Sembako consists of rice, flour, eggs, sugar, salt, cooking oil, kerosene, dried fish and basic textiles.
Finally, there are the 10 Persian vices (dah ak), named after the mythical demon-king Zahhak. He was notorious for 10 defects of body and mind: ugliness, shortness of stature, excessive pride, indecency, gluttony, scurrility, cruelty, hastiness, falsehood and cowardice!
Across the world’s largest continent, there are also numerical traditions linked to the seasons, months, and days of the week.
A traditional Thai belief holds that good luck comes to those who dress in the colour of the day. The code is yellow on Mondays, pink on Tuesdays, green on Wednesdays, orange on Thursdays, blue on Fridays, purple on Saturdays, and red on Sundays. Black is not considered lucky, in this traditional view, and is reserved for funerals.
There have been attempts to form new traditions too. In Turkmenistan in 2002, then-President-for-life Saparmurat Niyazov launched a campaign to rename the days of the week and months of the year after heroes from the country’s past. January was to be Turkmenbashi (Head of all the Turkmen), the president’s official title. In response to his suggestion that April be renamed Ana (PLS confirm) (Turkmen for Mother), one of his supporters suggested it be named after the President’s mother instead, and accordingly it was renamed Gurbansoltan-eje. The campaign didn’t hold. Niyazov died in 2006, and by 2008, all the calendars had been turned back to the months’ original names.
(Adam Jacot de Boinod was a researcher for the BBC series QI and is the author of The Meaning of Tingo. Starting this week, he will write monthly on quirky words from around the world)