The mystery of Okus Bokus

children hands

Okus bokus teli van cokus*
Šāl kič-kič vāngno
Onum batuk lodum dēgi
Val ba naličas savārey
Bramazāraz poyn čhokum
Ṭekis ṭ
eka banyov kyah   

We would sit in a circle with our hands placed on the floor, palms down. The lead player would move their right hand clockwise pointing towards the focus with the index finger touching a hand against a word. When the last word kyah was spelled out, the targeted hand was to be turned upside down. The next time this happened the hand was out of the game. The player would repeat the practice until the last hand remained in the game to be the winner. The winner would then take the lead and the game would continue. 

Stories get distorted when passed on from source to source. Memories fade away with time. But memories could also be creative. Often the end product is quite different from what the actual would have been. I always wondered what this children’s rhyme in my mother tongue would actually have meant when it was composed. Many words simply sounded nonsensical and unrecognizable when we heard them and repeated them. They said the rhyme was considerably distorted from the original over generations of having been orally preserved. Whatever the song meant, it is a testimony to a culture that I was raised in as a child, and which my American born children will perhaps never be able to cherish, experience or understand the way I did.   

The song, which has continued to be popular among Kashmiris of all denominations, has a number of “studied” versions, which attempt at solving the lexico-semantic mystery in Okus Bokus while none of these can be corroborated in absence of any attested data. The opening words of this ditty have been variously rendered as ca kus, ba kus, teli van su kus ‘Who are you, who am I, and then tell me, who is he?’, and hu kus, ba kus, teli van ca kus ‘Who is he, who am I, and then tell me, who are you?’ While the words have been considerably distorted and changed or replaced by other words or nonsensical syllables (as in okus bokus), the interpretations also vary widely. For example, according to one native speaker of Kashmiri, the word su ‘he’ refers to ‘the creator of the universe’ while in its modern, or so to say, corrupted version, su is perhaps a random person sitting in the room, a witness to the children’s play. Similarly, it is not clear how the second line, parsed as moh batuk logum degi by a contemporary performing artist, Kailash Mehra, and translated as ‘I feed my senses with the food of worldly attachment and material love’ (where moh means ‘desire’; refer to an explanation of the rhyme by Kailash Mehra here starting at 4:38 minutes) was modified to onum batuk lodum degi which literally means ‘I brought a duck and put it in the cauldron/pot’ (to be cooked for dinner perhaps? Could that be true?). What exactly is the word batuk (the only word that could come to mind is ‘duck’) is doing in “moh batuk”? If moh batuk indeed is an interpretable phrase used for ‘worldly attachment’, it should be available elsewhere in the language. The question is whether it has been attested in any other historical text — oral or written — in this form, or if it is available in the spoken word or the vernacular? Most likely not. If so, then the philosophical explanation does not make sense. 

The next line was passed on to us as šāl kič-kič vāngno. The possible original version of this line, according to one analysis, is: vs kič-kič vāng-mayam, with possibly only one translatable word of Sanskrit origin, viz., švās ‘breath’, while the rest of the words are completely unrecognizable to a modern Kashmiri speaker (cf. Kashmiri šah ‘breath’). A more spiritual interpretation attributed to this line (based on an online publication Gyawun) is: For when the breath that I take in reaches the point of absolute purification’. However, it is not clear how vs became l and how vangmayam (perhaps (likened to) an inflected Sanskrit verb whose meaning is to be confirmed) got replaced by vngno. The contemporary (distorted) version runs the risk of translating l as ‘jackal’ and vngno as the vocative form of vngun as ‘egg plant’, while the meaning of the reduplicated form kič-kič (alternating with khič-khič in certain performances) too is yet to be ascertained. Is it simply an onomatopoeia?     

Astonishingly interesting and perhaps another comic construction is the line: vala ba naličas savrey (Lit. ‘Come and swing on the hookah pipe’). This line is missing from most of the reconstructed (“intellectual”?) versions of the poem. What comes next is the line bramazras pōny čhokum (with another variant form brimji hras pōny čhokum), perhaps originally bruman/braman dras pōny čhokum (Lit. ‘I sprinkled water over bruman dr’, or ‘I sprinkled water over brimji hr’). In this line, while the word bruman is interpreted as ‘nerve center of the human brain,  it is not clear how dr can be understood, whether it is an independent word or, most likely, a part of bruman, because the Dative Case marker –as (roughly translated as ‘to’) appears on dr and not on bruman, which leads us to the possibility of bruman-dr being a single lexical entity, or a compound word. The corrupted version, bramazr-(as), may sound like a contraction of bram mazr, and could even be interpreted as ‘the graveyard of fear’(where bram means ‘fear’ or ‘apprehension’). The latter may rather be an oversimplification.  If it indeed is brimji-hr (which clearly looks like a compound noun),where brimji is the name of a tree, what does hr imply?   

The final line of the ditty reads as ekis eka banyov kyah in one and ekis eka banyov yok in another orally preserved version (with an additional version of brimji beni yekis yokah; Shantiveer Kaul, p.c.). The word yok could mean a ‘drop’ or a ‘dot’ and the line could possibly be (literally) translated as ‘a dot to a dot, and what did it become’ or ‘a dot became one with a dot’. A sophisticated translation equates the word yok with a dot made from sandal-wood paste depicting divine fragrance, and symbolic of universal divinity. This leads to the meaning of the line as: ‘I realize that I am, indeed, divine’.  Is that what it means? I do not know.  

Interestingly enough,  a linguist friend and colleague of mine who I shared my findings with, tried to derive a possible relationship of okus-bokus with hocus-pocus — a sham Latin invocation often used by magicians or jugglers in the West; the origin of hocus-pocus is found in a Latin interjection (Also cf. Hocas Pocas, common name of a magician or juggler in older times (1620s)). The striking phonetic similarity between the two, he thought, could “not simply be a matter of coincidence.” In it’s modern English connotation, hocus pocus refers to meaningless talk or activity, “designed to draw attention away from and disguise what is actually happening”.

It is almost unbelievable, indeed, that a sham Latin phrase would end up in a Kashmiri nursery rhyme. To find out we need to look at a few questions. For example, when did the first European missionaries or explorers come to Kashmir?  Could they have brought this, and people thought it was so funny and weird that they incorporated it in a nursery rhyme?  Is there anything similar in surrounding languages, especially languages farther west? Are there other examples of mock Latin or any other nonsense imitations of European languages in Kashmiri nursery rhymes. We do happen to have a Kashmiri (translated) version of Twinkle-Twinkle Little Star in the form of loke-moke trko.

If we can prove that okus-bokus goes back in Kashmiri (or South Asian) tradition way before any European contacts or influence, then perhaps the analyses provided above would be correct to a certain extent. It is very much possible that some of the philosophical explanations are forced upon and far-fetched.

© Sadaf Munshi

* Click here for assistance with the transcription used in this text.

11 responses to “The mystery of Okus Bokus”

  1. Sadaf di( if I can call you dat) really a very nice and informative write up!


    1. You are welcome. Do take a look at the last two paragraphs which have been added and may be interesting to you.


  2. What a fascinating deconstruction of a beloved nursery rhyme. I always thought it was a nonsense rhyme but I guess there’s no such thing! Thanks for this.


    1. Thank you. Glad you liked it.


    2. Thank you. I updated the content. You may want to check the last two paragraphs.


  3. Hamid ullah dhar Avatar
    Hamid ullah dhar

    My pet childhood rhyme. Well reseached and reconstructed .applaud mam.


  4. Thank you. I have updated the content and added more to it. Please read the last couple passages which are new. Thanks.


  5. It is wonderful and informative re-construction of the rhyme. This has been attributed to a particular group of Kashmiris, which I have failed to understand. Why so? That too, when it was common rhyme among children across whole of Kashmir. Some words may have similar pronunciations in other languages but meaning different things. It is good one. Thanks


    1. Thank you. I am glad you liked it. I hope this will clarify some of the things, or at least raise a few questions.


  6. Mir Mukhtar Ahmad Avatar
    Mir Mukhtar Ahmad

    Superb , its a great deed. We should support this noble mission started by you & work hard to keep our cultural heritage alive. Appreciable & commendable job. Be blessed


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