In a continent as vast, ancient and diverse as Asia, it is no surprise that many cultures have vocabularies of terms that highlight unique customs. Especially in South-East Asia, many of these notions are linked to numbers.
In Vietnam, for example, there is a trinity of basic social bonds known 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 beings (tu-linh): dragon, unicorn, turtle, phoenix.
Widely spoken in Tulu, Karnataka, Panchamahapataka refers to a group of five specific sins considered the greatest: killing a Brahmin, stealing gold, drinking alcohol, seducing one’s spiritual master’s wife, and associating with a man. They have committed such sins.
In China, one’s closest relatives are traditionally numbered six, and are called Liuqin: father, mother, elder brothers, younger brothers, wife, children.
Haft rang is the Persian word for the seven colors of the heavenly bodies: black (from Saturn); Brown (Jupiter); Red (Mars); Yellow (Sun); White (Venus); Blue (Mercury); and green (moon). In Sinhalese, Saptavidha-ratnaya represents the seven jewels or treasures of the king: chariot wheel, wife, jewel, elephant, horse, son/son and prime minister.
Ashtanga in Hindi refers to prostration in salutation or worship, to the eight major parts of a person, which, poetically, include the knees, hands, feet, chest, eyes, head, speech, and mind.
In Sanskrit, the nine precious gems are considered to be nasaya-ratna, pearl, ruby, topaz, diamond, emerald, lapis lazuli, coral, sapphire and gomed or hessonite. Each is believed to have different healing properties. Also there are nine basic items that Indonesian tradition considers essential for daily life. Sembako consists of rice, flour, eggs, sugar, salt, cooking oil, kerosene, dried fish and basic textiles.
Finally, there are 10 Persian vices (Dah Ek) named after the legendary demon-king Jahak. He was notorious for 10 vices of body and mind: ugliness, shortness of stature, excessive pride, indecency, greed, ugliness, cruelty, rashness, lying and cowardice!
On the world’s largest continent, there are also numerical traditions linked to the seasons, months and days of the week.
A traditional Thai belief is that those who wear the color of the day will have good luck. The code is Monday Yellow, Tuesday Pink, Wednesday Green, Thursday Orange, Friday Blue, Saturday Purple and Sunday Red. In this traditional view black is not considered lucky, and is reserved for funerals.
There has also been an attempt to create a new tradition. In 2002 in Turkmenistan, then-President-for-Life Saparmurat Niyazov launched a campaign to rename days of the week and months of the year after heroes of the country’s past. Jan Turkmenbashi (Chief of all Turkmen), used to be the official title of the president. In response to his suggestion to name April Ana (PLS CONFIRM) (Turkmen for mother), one of his supporters suggested naming it after the president’s mother instead, and it was named Gurbansoltan-AJ accordingly. The campaign did not run. Niyazov died in 2006, and by 2008, all calendars reverted to the original month names.
(Adam Jacot de Boinod was a researcher for the BBC series QI and is the author of The Meaning of Tingo. From this week, he will be writing monthly on strange words from around the world)