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Photo: Bloomberg
Photo: Bloomberg

Shivaji Maharaj top page on Marathi Wikipedia, Guru Granth Sahib on Punjabi

Wikipedia’s Indian-language versions get significant readership for articles about the country, with those on the Constitution among the top pages

Wikipedia is the first port of call for many internet users globally when they want to dig up information. In India, an increasing number of people are turning to Wikipedia’s Indian-language editions, Wikipedia data shows. So far this year, Indian internet users have browsed the pages of Wikipedia more than 500 million times in their local languages.

The range of topics varies widely. Marathi readers read a lot about historical icons from Maharashtra. Punjabi and Urdu readers read more about religion. Tamil, Assamese, Odia, and Kannada readers read more on their own languages and literature. Bhojpuri readers read more about sex and sexuality.

These are the findings of a Mint analysis of Wikipedia data for 14 of its Indian-language editions. In July alone, articles on these 14 Wikipedia editions were viewed 135 million times—49% of which came from India-based users. Hindi led the way with 51 million page views globally, followed by Bangla with 22 million.

Top languages, such as English (9.7 billion page views in July) and Japanese (1.1 billion), have much higher readership, but Indian Wikipedias are picking up. Eleven of the 14 languages in the study have seen big jumps in readership this year. The numbers for Malayalam were the highest ever in July.

All 14 languages with more than 10 million native speakers in India, and having their own Wikipedia edition, were considered in the analysis. The analysis was based on Wikipedia lists of each month’s top 1,000 articles in each language. Using these lists, covering 98,000 articles across seven months, we listed the top 50 articles for each language for the entire period. We then put these 700 articles into broad interest buckets such as “religion", “history", “India", “coronavirus" and “culture".

Wikipedia provides country-level data for aggregate readership, but not for separate articles. So, the analysis of interest areas of Bangla readers was heavily influenced by those in Bangladesh and Urdu’s by readers in Pakistan. The two countries contribute more than three times as much readership in these languages than India does.

For other Indian language wikis, most traffic comes from India. The US and Canada also account for a significant share of traffic in Indian language wikis. Across the Wikipedia editions, interest in coronavirus peaked in March and April and has declined since then. In three languages, Kannada, Maithili and Bhojpuri, the topic got little attention even during those months.

Wikipedia pages relating to Hindu mythology got greater traction than the coronavirus during the lockdown months. Users turned to vernacular-language Wikipedias more than 760,000 times in April to bring themselves up to speed on the Ramayana and Mahabharata, as the epics returned to TV.

For a similar reason, Urdu Wikipedia readers showed an unusual interest in medieval Turk kings. A 2014 Netflix historical series from Turkey was telecast in Pakistan during Ramzan on Prime Minister Imran Khan’s request. This made history the second-most popular topic in the language, getting 16% of all page views of the top 50 articles.

Religion’s appeal is not just limited to these episodes though. Punjabi readers browsed articles about Sikhism, most often on the Guru Granth Sahib and the 10 gurus. In April and May, during the holy month of Ramzan, users in Bangla, Urdu and Malayalam read a lot about Islam, though this could mainly be because of readership outside India. The interest in Hindu mythology was very high for Gujarati, Hindi and Kannada readers.

Indians across languages read a lot of Wikipedia pages about country’s history, geography and civics. Articles about the Indian Constitution were among the top write-ups in several languages month after month. So were articles about states. “Karnataka" for Kannada, “Punjabi culture" for Punjab, and “List of districts of Kerala" for Malayalam also figured in the top 50 lists.

In Marathi, 39% of all page views among the top 50 articles in the January–July period were for historical topics. The wiki page on Chhatrapati Shivaji got nearly 575,000 page views during the period, followed by Savitribai Phule (276,000), and Sambhaji Bhonsle (213,000).

Language, grammar and literature were popular topics in several editions. Bangla users read about Rabindranath Tagore more than 208,000 times between January and July. On the Kannada Wikipedia, articles about local literature and the Jnanpith Award got 126,000 page views.

In a culture where sex is taboo, the topic gets sizeable interest online. It is no different on Wikipedia, but only in a handful of languages. Bhojpuri led the way with high levels of readership: wiki pages on female genitals and sex positions topped the list each month.

English rules the internet and Wikipedia, but is understood by just 10% of Indians.

For years, the language barrier held back many Indians from making full use of online resources. That is changing now, even if slowly. English readership on Wikipedia is still 10 times that of Indian language readership, but if the trends so far this year hold, this ratio is likely to decline.

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