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Of little-known Indian languages and scripts

A story, probably apocryphal, talks of the Union Jack continuing to flutter over the lighthouse at Minicoy Island (part of Lakshadweep) even as late as 1956. The lighthouse keeper apparently hadn’t heard that India had become independent almost a decade ago. The flag was then taken down and the tricolour hoisted up.

Minicoy is the southernmost island of the Lakshadweep group, closer to the Maldives with which it shares linguistic ties rather than to the Indian mainland or even the capital of Lakshadweep, Kavaratti. The islanders speak Mahl, which is very similar to the Divehi spoken in neighbouring Maldives.

In fact, the story goes that the name Mahl itself is a misnomer. An Englishman apparently confused the name of the island (known locally as Maaliku) for the name of the language. But on Indian census records, Mahl is the name recorded. An Indo-Aryan language close to Sinhalese, it is distinctly different from the Malayalam of the rest of the island group.

Minicoy is matriarchal and women control the local economy as its men remain away from the island for as many as nine months of the year on merchant navy ships. Marco Polo is said to have visited this island in medieval times and marvelled at its women-dominated culture. Sea-faring has been a distinct part of the Minicoy way of life for centuries and hence the lighthouse story is probably just a story given that its people are well-connected with the world at large. But what the story does is that it illustrates the remoteness of the island from mainstream Indian discourse.

Not just the Mahl spoken in Minicoy, many other languages exist in various parts of India, little-known except to those who use them and perhaps, a few neighbouring communities. Apart from many languages, India is also home to a bewildering array of scripts, many of which have fallen out of use.

Thousands of miles away from Minicoy, on the foothills of the mighty Himalayas, something of an earth-shaking archaeological linguistic find was made in the mid-eighties. A German scholar, Claus-Peter Zoller stumbled upon a find that shook the world of linguistics. Bangani, spoken in a corner of Garhwal in the state of Uttarakhand, had a distinct vocabulary that seemed to indicate a kinship with ancient European languages like Latin and Greek, among others.

Ten in Bangani is “daku” and tear is “dakru” and this is akin to the Latin “decem” and “lacrima” as opposed to the Sanskrit “dasan” and “ashru”, which it technically should have been closer to. How this tongue came to be in Garhwal is a mystery, the unravelling of which might overturn current understandings of migration in ancient times.

In Kashmir can be found manuscripts written in Sarada. Derived from Brahmi, this ancient script was once used by the Kashmiri Pandit community, but has since fallen into disuse. Another script derived from Brahmi and now forgotten is the Mahajani script, used by the mercantile community in and around Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan to maintain financial records. A substantial corpus of financial records exists in this script, awaiting decipherment.

In Tanjore’s Sarasvati Mahal Library, established by the Maratha king Serfoji II, lie a bunch of manuscripts in Modi. Used to write the Marathi language till the 1950s, it was then replaced by Devanagari. Derived from the Marathi word “modane” meaning “broken” or “bent”, it was believed that the letters of the script were derived from broken Devanagari letters.

A few hundred miles from Tanjore on Tamil Nadu’s coast and in parts of Sri Lanka, one comes across Arwi. It is a version of the Tamil language that uses the Arabic alphabet and also has borrowed words from the Arabic language. Born as a result of the interactions between Arabs and Tamils in medieval times, Arwi is still taught in madrasas in the region. Many Arwi manuscripts lie in private hands and are being eaten away by termites. A sad end to a shining example of what the modern world today might term the “glocal”.

In Madurai in southern Tamil Nadu can be found the language of Saurashtri. Similar to Hindi and Marathi and buttressed by words from the southern languages, this is a distinct language born as a result of migration of people from the Saurashtra region to this part of the world. Until recently, this language even had its own script, but has since switched to Devanagari.

Akin to Arwi in Tamil Nadu is the Arabi-Malayalam that one comes across in Kerala. Born as a result of Arab settlements in Kerala, it uses the Arabic script with some additions to accommodate Malayalam sounds. While the language was used largely to write letters and maintain accounts, there is some literature in the language as well and a newspaper too was published in this script in the early 1900s. The script continues to be taught in madrasas.

Also found in Kerala is Syriac Malayalam, used by the Syrian Christians of Kerala. Using the East Syriac script (with additions to accommodate Malayalam sounds) and accommodating words from East Syriac, it was widely-used in Kerala at one point. Documents in this distinct language can be found even today in private hands. Incidentally, Syriac is a dialect of Aramaic, the language that Jesus Christ himself spoke.

In northeastern India, in the states of Assam and Tripura, and in neighbouring Bangladesh, a language called Bishnupriya Manipuri, or Bishnupriya as it is sometimes known, is spoken. An Indo-Aryan language, it originated and developed in Manipur and was originally confined to the surroundings of the Loktak lake. Many of its speakers fled from Manipur during the 18th and 19th centuries and sought refuge in neighbouring regions.

Derived from the many Prakrits of ancient times, Bishnupriya belongs to the Indo-Aryan language family. Meitei, the state language of Manipur, on the other hand, is from the Tibeto-Burman family. Bishnupriya shows a strong Meitei influence owing to its centuries of co-existing in proximity with the language, but uses the Bengali alphabet.

These little-known languages and scripts lurk in the shadows forgotten and concealing within themselves a cornucopia of rich cultural information waiting to be unearthed. As it stands, these languages and scripts have not been able to face the onslaught of a distinct form of Indian cultural chauvinism that favours standardization and uniformity.

The case of Kaithi, which once competed with Devanagari to become the preferred script of Hindi, is an indication as to how what was once popular can swiftly fade from public memory. Up until the early years of the 20th century, Kaithi was almost as popular as Devanagari. But with the British courts preferring Devanagari, Kaithi was ruthlessly cast aside and today is a mere footnote in the history of Hindi.

Karthik Venkatesh is an editor with a publishing firm and a freelance writer. Views are personal. 

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