Ol Chiki

Ol Chiki


The Ol Chiki script, also called Ol Cemet’, Ol Ciki, Olchiki, or simply Ol, was invented by Pandit Raghunath Murmu between 1925 and 1939 to write Santali, the most widely-spoken language in the state of Jharkhand. As has happened a number of times in Asia, this was an act of cultural promotion, an effort to gain respect: in India, a language that does not have its own script is often at a disadvantage — sometimes a vast disadvantage — politically, economically, and in terms of respect.

It’s an ingenious script, created so as to make it easy to learn, using a series of built-in visual cues or mnemonics. One letter, for example, represents a sickle used for cutting or reaping; others depict a vessel used for preparing food, a peak of an unusually high mountain, a mushroom. Some are a kind of visual onomatopoeia. A flying bee becomes the bee-letter representing a buzzing sound; a vomiting-mouth-shape which produces the same sound as the name of the letter.

The Ol Chiki script has received some official recognition and Raghunath was honoured by the Orissan government.

More recently, Olchiki has benefited from an unusually far-sighted multilingual education program that supports linguistic diversity in Jharkhand.

According to Binay Pattanayak, an education specialist at UNICEF, “Under my guidance textbooks for primary level were developed in Olchiki and Warang Chiti scripts along with books in Devanagari script. These were printed by [the state] government. These books are used in selected government schools.”

The program’s full title is Mother-Tongue-based Active Language Learning, or M-TALL.

They began in 2011 by conducting a statewide sociolinguistic survey that discovered — and this is hardly a surprise in India, with its affinity for “official” languages but a vast diversity of indigenous languages — that 96% of children in Jharkhand spoke tribal and regional languages rather than Hindi at home or in the playground, and in fact they had great difficulty understanding their teachers who spoke Hindi, and textbooks written in Hindi.

By 2014 the program had developed bilingual picture dictionaries in nine tribal and regional languages, and began setting up language centers in multiple districts. By 2016 new textbooks were ready in 16 languages, printed not only in the standard Devanagari script but also in Olchiki and Warangchiti.